Category Archives: Climate

Miners rape Amazonia; climate drives more change


Two new studies from Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Science and Innovation based in Tambopata, Perú reveal profound changes in the lands along the shores of the world’s longest river and the mountains that feed it.

The first study examines the profound and expanding impacts of the quest for gold as forests are felled at an accelerating rate and the land left poisoned by mercury used to extract the precious metal.

From Wake Forest University:

Small-scale gold mining has destroyed more than 170,000 acres of primary rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon in the past five years, according to a new analysis by scientists at Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation (CINCIA).

That’s an area larger than San Francisco and 30 percent more than previously reported.

“The scale of the deforestation is really shocking,” said Luis Fernandez, executive director of CINCIA and research associate professor in the department of biology.

The scientists at CINCIA, based in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, have developed a new data fusion method to identify areas destroyed by this small- or artisanal-scale mining. Combining existing CLASlite forest monitoring technology and Global Forest Change data sets on forest loss, this new deforestation detection tool is 20-25 percent more accurate than those used previously.

Both CLASlite and the Global Forest map use different kinds of information from light waves to show changes in the landscape. “Combining the two methods gives us really good information about the specific kind of deforestation we’re looking for,” said Miles Silman, associate director of science for CINCIA and director of Wake Forest’s Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability (CEES). Silman has researched biodiversity and ecology in the Western Amazon and Andes for more than 25 years.

Artisanal-scale gold mining has been hard to detect because its aftereffects can masquerade as natural wetlands from a satellite view. But the damage is extensive. Small crews of artisanal miners don’t expect to hit the mother lode. Rather, miners set out to collect the flakes of gold in rainforest.

“We’re not talking about huge gold veins here,” Fernandez said. “But there’s enough gold in the landscape to make a great deal of money in a struggling economy. You just have to destroy an immense amount of land to get it.”

To get the gold, they strip the land of trees or suck up river sediment, and then use toxic mercury to tease the precious metal out of the dirt. The results are environmentally catastrophic.

Aerial view of the damage inflicted by miners along the upper reaches of the Amazon in Peru.

Artisanal-scale gold mining took root in the Peruvian Amazon in the early 2000s, coinciding with construction of a new modern highway connecting Peru and Brazil. The Interoceanic Highway made Peru’s once remote rainforest and protected lands accessible to anyone. Where it used to take two weeks by all-terrain vehicle to travel from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios, during the rainy season, it now takes only six hours aboard an air-conditioned luxury bus.

Because artisanal-scale gold mining requires no heavy machinery and thus involves minimal outlay, it has provided a revolving-door opportunity for poor workers from the Andean highlands to seek their fortune in Madre de Dios. When they return home, they leave a patchwork of mercury-polluted ponds and sand dunes, the landscape denuded of trees and most other vegetation.

CINCIA has partnered with Peru’s Ministry of the Environment to try to understand how the new tool developed by its scientists can be used to identify deforestation caused by artisanal-scale gold mining and take effective action to curb the damage.

“We want to integrate high-quality scientific research into the processes the government is using for environmental conservation in Madre de Dios,” Fernandez said.

CINCIA scientists also are studying native species that can be used for post-mining reforestation. The 115-acre experiment at CINCIA’s headquarters is the largest in the Americas.

Wake Forest University established CINCIA in 2016 through CEES. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, World Wildlife Fund, IIAP, the Amazon Aid Foundation, Ecosphere Capital Partners/Althelia Climate Change Fund, ESRI Global Inc., UNAMAD, and Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología, CINCIA has brought together scientists and conservationists to develop solutions for sustainable use of tropical landscapes, combat environmental destruction and improve health in Madre de Dios.

From Wake Forest News comes this animation showing rate rate of deforestion since 1985:

Deforestation Sequence in the Peruvian Amazon

Program note:

This animation shows the deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon from 1985 to 2017. Video courtesy Wake Forest University’s Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation.

Rising temperatures drive Andean tropical trees upslope

As the planet heats up, temperatures in the Amazon’s headwater’s are rising as well, with the heat already showing impacts on the region’s tropical forestdriving them to new heights, mountainous heights.

And that’s bad new for the ecology of lower elevations left behind.

From Wake Forest:

Tropical and subtropical forests across South America’s Andes Mountains are responding to warming temperatures by “migrating” to higher elevations, but probably not quickly enough to avoid loss of biodiversity, functional collapse or even extinction, according to a new study published November 14 in the journal Nature. [$8.99 for short-term access].

The study, supervised by University of Miami researcher Kenneth J. Feeley, was co-authored by Wake Forest biologists Miles Silman and William Farfan-Rios, and used much of the field data they have collected in the Andean forests. Feeley began developing the techniques used in this research when he was a postdoctoral associate at Wake Forest. He also studied at Wake Forest as an undergraduate.

The study confirms for the first time that, like many other plant and animal species around the world, tree species from across the Andean and Amazon forests of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and northern Argentina have been moving to higher, cooler elevations. But unlike the world’s more temperate or boreal forests, which are far more accustomed to dramatic seasonal shifts in temperature, tropical trees are running into environmental roadblocks at higher elevations that are thwarting their upward migration and threatening their survival.

More after the jump. . .

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Sustainable farming curbs greenhouses gases


Our final climate offering of the day blends two of our favorite topics, climate change and sustainable agriculture,m with a special focus on biochar [also known as terra preta]

The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Amazon Basin had a remarkable secret, lost after their advanced civilization was destroyed by the disease brought by European explorers.

Sailing up the previously unexplored rive, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, traveled down the Amazon in December 1541 on a journey that would last eight months before he sailed into Pacific Ocean, along the way discovering a rich, densely settled civilization producing high crop yields in the rain forest where, contrary to popular perceptions, soils are typically thin and poor.

Orellana’s stories helped fuel the myth of El Dorado, the famous lost City of Gold, but when later explorer’s sailed the Amazon, they found no flourishing cities, leaving Orellana in dispute for the next 500 years until archaeologists found proof of his claims in buried cities and soil rich in pot sherds and bit of partially combusted wood, or char.

The combination of charcoal and pottery turned thin, dreploeted soils in ricb black earth [in Spanish, terra preta], capable of yielding an agricultural bounty able to support a dense, prosperous population.

From David Bennett of the Delta Farm Press:

The properties of terra preta are amazing. Even thousands of years after creation, the soil remains fertile without need for any added fertilizer. For those living in Amazonia, terra preta is increasingly sought out as a commodity. Truckloads of the dark earth are often carted off and sold like potting soil.

Chock-full of charcoal, the soil is often several meters deep. It holds nutrients extremely well and seems to contain a microbial mix especially suited to agriculture.

And it was all created by a people the explorers called savages.

And if your interested in learning more the miraculous Native American discovery, here‘s a good place to start.

And now, on to to the latest development.

Study reveals natural solutions to combat climate change

From Cornell University:

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from all U.S. vehicles could be absorbed by forests, wetlands and agricultural lands – erasing a fifth of all greenhouse gas pollution, according to new research exploring natural climate solutions for the United States.

Peter Woodbury, senior research associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a co-author on research published Nov. 14 in Science Advances [open access].

The researchers analyzed 21 natural ways to mitigate climate change. They found that adjusting those natural management practices to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse emissions could equal 21 percent of the nation’s current net annual emissions. Increased reforestation could be equivalent to eliminating the emissions of 66 million passenger cars, according to the findings.

Improved management of existing croplands has an important role to play, according to the researchers. Woodbury, who led the cropland nutrient management portion of the study, and his colleagues found that many agricultural practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Widespread adoption of cover crops – plants grown on farm fields when they would normally be left bare – aids in carbon sequestration and improves soil health, crop yields and yield consistency. The researchers also pointed to improved nutrient management practices that apply fertilizer when and where the crop needs it, using precision agriculture techniques.

These improved practices could reduce nitrogen use 22 percent, leading to a 33 percent reduction in field emissions and 29 percent reduction in upstream emissions with additional benefits for soil, air and water quality. In many cases, these practices also improve profitability for farmers.

“We have demonstrated that agriculture and forestry have real potential to both avoid greenhouse gas emissions and also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. At the same time, these practices have many other benefits such as improving soil health and water quality by reducing nutrient pollution of fresh water and the coastal zone,” said Woodbury, who develops models to quantify the sustainability of agricultural and forest ecosystems. Woodbury is a fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

The researchers pointed to biochar as one method with high potential, although further research is needed to overcome cultural, technological and cost barriers. In May, Cornell opened the largest pyrolysis kiln of its kind at a U.S. university to study the uses of biochar, a solid, charcoal-like material formed by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. Biochar can help soil retain water and nutrients, as well as promote drainage when conditions are wet.

The researchers say that, along with reducing the impact of global warming, natural climate solutions have the potential to improve air and water quality, flood control, soil health and wildlife habitats.

Other solutions include: allowing longer periods between timber harvest to increase carbon storage; increasing controlled burns and strategic thinning in forests to reduce the risk of tree-killing fires; and reducing urban sprawl to preserve forests.

“These 21 natural climate solutions are really important because they can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the world while also providing other benefits including clean water, clean air and biodiversity,” said Woodbury.

BBC documents Orellana’s Amazon discoveries

Here’s a remarkable BBC documentary reporting on what scientists are finding as they retrace Orellana’s footsteps, with a special emphasis on terra preta.

The Secret of El Dorado

From the program notes:

The search for clues in the Amazon takes place at grass roots level – in the soil itself. Along Brazil’s Tapajos River, archaeologist Bill Woods has mapped numerous prehistoric sites, some with exquisite, 2,000 year old pottery. There is a common thread: the earth where people have lived is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. Closer investigation showed that the two soils are the same, the dark loam is just a result of adding biological matter. The Brazilians call this fertile ground terra preta. It is renowned for its productivity and even sold by local people.

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates favourably with the places Orellana reported back in the 16th century. The land area is immense – twice the size of the UK. It seems the prehistoric Amazonian peoples transformed the earth beneath their feet. The terra preta could have sustained permanent intensive agriculture, which in turn would have fostered the development of advanced societies. Archaeologists like Bill Petersen, from the University of Vermont, now regard Orellana’s account as highly plausible. But if the first Conquistadors told the truth, what became of the people they described?

Maps of the day: More climate change impacts


A new study from Cornell University casts new on thee life-threatening reality climate change:

Severe Caribbean droughts may magnify food insecurity

A comparison of drought conditions between 2015 and 2017 on the island of Hispaniola, home to Haiti (in the west) and the Dominican Republic. Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index, dark brown indicates severe to extreme drought, while blue colors indicate wetter than normal conditions. In the summer of 2015, when the Pan-Caribbean drought peaked, most of Hispaniola had severe drought conditions. In contrast, the western portion of the island – mostly Haiti – had wetter-than-normal conditions in January 2017 due to rain from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Even after the hurricane, drought conditions remained for the Dominican Republic.

More from Cornell:

Climate change is impacting the Caribbean, with millions facing increasing food insecurity and decreasing freshwater availability as droughts become more likely across the region, according to new Cornell research in Geophysical Research Letters [open access].

“Climate change – where mean temperatures rise – has already affected drought risk in the Caribbean. While our research focused on the role of human-causes for the strong 2013-16 drought there, our findings and climate-model projections show that drought in the region will likely to become more severe over time,” said lead author Dimitris Herrera, postdoctoral associate in earth and atmospheric sciences.

Since 1950, the Caribbean region has seen a drying trend and scattered multiyear droughts. But the recent Pan-Caribbean drought in 2013-16 was unusually severe and placed 2 million people in danger of food insecurity.

In Haiti, for example, over half the crops were lost in 2015 due to drought, which pushed about 1 million people into food insecurity, while an additional 1 million people suffered food shortages throughout the region, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.

Examining climatological data from the 2013-16 Pan-Caribbean drought, anthropogenic warming accounted for a 15 to 17 percent boost of the drought’s severity, Herrera said.

Climate model simulations indicate the most significant decrease in precipitation in the Caribbean might occur May through August – the rainy season. A failed rainy season in spring and summer, added to a normal dry season in the late fall and winter, prolongs a drought.

Beyond growing crops, the Caribbean also faces dwindling freshwater resources, due to saltwater intrusion from rising seas and pressure from agricultural and municipal sectors.

“This paper documents that human activity is already affecting the drought statistics of the region,” said Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, and a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “Hot temperatures in the future will probably continue to play an increasingly important role in exacerbating droughts.”

Although the Caribbean has recently been affected by catastrophic hurricanes – such as Maria and Irma – that caused significant and rapid damage, persistent droughts can slowly bring havoc to vulnerable Caribbean countries, said Herrera: “This is especially true for the agriculture and tourism sectors of this region, which are the most important contributors to gross domestic product in most Caribbean nations.”

Other authors are of “Exacerbation of the 2013-2016 Pan Caribbean Drought by Anthropogenic Warming,” are John Fasullo, National Center for Atmospheric Research; Sloan Coats, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Carlos Carrillo, Cornell; Benjamin Cook, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and A. Park Williams, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University.

The research was supported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

But there’s some potentially good news, too

Another new study, this one from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, study links over-consumption of alcohol with two curious factors, cold temperatures and alcohol.

While climate change won’t tilt the Earth’s axis further south, it’s already making northern latitudes warmer, so there’ll be less need for somatic antifreeze. . .

We begin with a map from the study comparing levels of booze-guzzling and binge behavior in the counties of the good ol’ U.S of .A. [click on it to embiggen]:

From the University:

Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their warm-weather counterparts.

The study, recently published online in Hepatology, [$6 for 48-hour access] found that as temperature and sunlight hours dropped, alcohol consumption increased. Climate factors also were tied to binge drinking and the prevalence of alcoholic liver disease, one of the main causes of mortality in patients with prolonged excessive alcohol use.

“It’s something that everyone has assumed for decades, but no one has scientifically demonstrated it. Why do people in Russia drink so much? Why in Wisconsin? Everybody assumes that’s because it’s cold,” said senior author Ramon Bataller, M.D., Ph.D., chief of hepatology at UPMC, professor of medicine at Pitt, and associate director of the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “But we couldn’t find a single paper linking climate to alcohol intake or alcoholic cirrhosis. This is the first study that systematically demonstrates that worldwide and in America, in colder areas and areas with less sun, you have more drinking and more alcoholic cirrhosis.”

Alcohol is a vasodilator – it increases the flow of warm blood to the skin, which is full of temperature sensors – so drinking can increase feelings of warmth. In Siberia that could be pleasant, but not so much in the Sahara.

Drinking also is linked to depression, which tends to be worse when sunlight is scarce and there’s a chill in the air.

Using data from the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and other large, public data sets, Bataller’s group found a clear negative correlation between climate factors – average temperature and sunlight hours – and alcohol consumption, measured as total alcohol intake per capita, percent of the population that drinks alcohol, and the incidence of binge drinking.

The researchers also found evidence that climate contributed to a higher burden of alcoholic liver disease. These trends were true both when comparing across countries around the world and also when comparing across counties within the United States.

“It’s important to highlight the many confounding factors,” said lead author Meritxell Ventura-Cots, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Pittsburgh Liver Research Center. “We tried to control for as many as we could. For instance, we tried to control for religion and how that influences alcohol habits.”

With much of the desert-dwelling Arab world abstaining from alcohol, it was critical to verify that the results would hold up even when excluding these Muslim-majority countries. Likewise, within the U.S., Utah has regulations that limit alcohol intake, which have to be taken into account.

When looking for patterns of cirrhosis, the researchers had to control for health factors that might exacerbate the effects of alcohol on the liver—like viral hepatitis, obesity and smoking.

In addition to settling an age-old debate, this research suggests that policy initiatives aimed at reducing the burden of alcoholism and alcoholic liver disease should target geographic areas where alcohol is more likely to be problematic.

Additional authors on this study include Ariel Watts, B.S., Neil Shah, M.D., Peter McCann, M.D., and A. Sidney Barritt IV, M.D., all of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Monica Cruz-Lemini, M.D., Ph.D., of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México at Juriquilla; Jose Altamirano, M.D., of Hospital Quirónsalud in Barcelona; Juan Abraldes, M.D., from The University of Alberta; Nambi Ndugga, M.P.H., of Harvard; and Anant Jain, M.D., Samhita Ravi, and Carlos Fernández-Carrillo, M.D., Ph.D., all of Pitt.

This research was supported by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awards U01AA021908 and U01AA020821, the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology and the Spanish Association for the Study of the Liver.

Map of the day: EurAfroAsian heritage endangered


History is constructed.

Every history text, whether in books [popular, academic, and fictional], academic journals, the popular press, and on screens theatrical, computorial, and cellular].

The history we learned as a child born at the very inception of the Post World War II Baby boom we learned at the knees of mother born to a Danish Klansman and 32nd Degree Freemason and a spouse who belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a father sired by two Pennsylvania Dutch settlers invited to settle in a state tolerant of all religions by its founder, William Penn.

Three great-grandfathers fought for the Union in the Civil War, a conflict that loomed large in from our earliest forays into print, and avidly consumed whenever it appeared on movie screens, radio dramas, and then on the black-and-white, often fuzzy, and  oddly compelling screen of the bulky console television set dramatically introduced into our living room shortly before we turned six [we were one of the first homes in Abilene, Kansas,  making us very popular with neighbors, both young and old].

Unlike today, overtly fascist perspectives were then largely limited to utterances by bad guys in novels or in the World War II-based action flicks that dominated the screen or by subscribing to costly mimeographed “newsletters” mailed in plain brown wrappers or via envelopes with post office box numbers for the return address.

America was then dominated by systems of legally mandated racial and religious segregation, drawn up by and for the melanin deficient, a fact confronted at water fountains, soda fountains, restaurants, theaters, club rooms, classrooms [with the Three Rs of Race, Religion, and Region, where one state’s War Between the States was another’s War of Northern Aggression], church pews, courtrooms, and clubrooms. . . and, well, just about everywhere.

Our passion for history was learned first at the knees on our paternal grandmother, whose father commanded a Union cavalry forward scout company in a regiment at the very spearhead of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a campaign that left him with both a lifelong lung disease and insurmountable case of nostalgia, now better known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Through her stories, history became both intimate and vivid, most especially because she’d had direct contact with two of the most dominant figures in he media of the day: As a baby she’d perched on the knee of town Marshal, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock, a figure then-poplar in fiction, film, and [especially for us] television, while as a teenager armed with a high school diploma and a graduation certificate who taught a bright young kid from the wrong side of the tracks how to read and write, a kid who went of to West Point and to lead the Allied armies in Europe during World War II, then served at the helm of Columbia University before becoming President when we six year’s old, Dwight David Eisenhower. Grandma Brenneman rode in a float and we were in the crowd when Ike came to town to announce his run for the White House.

We’ve lived long enough to have seen radical changes in the construction of our remembrance of things past, acquiring along the way what a former editor called “a profound sense of history, especially for one as young as you” [we were then 37].

History constructed in pigment, stone, mud and landscape

Back in third grade we learned cursive, and the even before we were able to write our own name, we insisted our teacher instruct us in writing archaeology, the vocation which we were then certain would be out life.s work [a confrontation with the realities of academic departmental politics would later lead us to take dig in more contemporaneous dirt as a journalist].

We amassed a sizeable and still-growing library of books about the cultures of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece Rome, Mesoamerica, and Asia, allowing us to feast on images of ruined cities and splendid artifacts and stories people and civilizations long vanished. We dreamt of digging in ancient ruins [an aspiration realized on a collegiate dig of an ancient kiva outside Taos, New Mexico].

But now a menace we know all too well threatens to inundate many of world’s most memorable ancient sites, with some very famous names on a the endangered species list.

Flood risk index at each World Heritage site under current and future conditions. [a] In 2000 and [b] in 2100 under the high-end sea-level rise scenario. From Nature open access].

More from the University of Southampton:

UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean such as Venice, the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa and the Medieval City of Rhodes are under threat of coastal erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels, a study published in Nature magazine reports this week.

The study presents a risk index that ranks the sites according to the threat they face from today until the end of the century. The sites featuring highest on this index in current conditions include Venice and its Lagoon, Ferrara, City of the Renaissance and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia. All these sites are located along the northern Adriatic Sea where extreme sea levels are the highest because high storm surges coincide with high regional sea-level rises. The sites most at risk from coastal erosion include Tyre, Lebanon, the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco, Spain, and Ephesus, Turkey.

The study, led by Lena Reimann at Kiel University, Germany, working with University of Southampton coastal scientist, Dr Sally Brown and Professor Richard Tol from the University of Sussex combines model simulations with world heritage site data to assess the risk of both coastal flooding and erosion due to sea level rise at 49 UNESCO coastal Heritage sites by the end of the century. They find that of the sites, 37 are at risk from a 100-year flood event (a flooding event which has a 1% chance of happening in any given year) and 42 from coastal erosion today. By the next century flood risk may increase by 50 % and erosion risk by 13 % across the region, and all but two of the sites (Medina of Tunis and Xanthos-Letoon) will be at risk from either of these hazards.

The Mediterranean region has a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, many of which are in coastal locations as human activity has historically concentrated around these areas. Rising sea levels pose a threat to these sites as the steep landscape and small tidal range in the area has meant settlements are often located close to the waterfront. The report says that more information on the risk at a local level is needed and the approaches to adaption and protection varies across the region due to large social and economic differences between Mediterranean countries.

Dr Sally Brown from the University of Southampton said “Heritage sites face many challenges to adapt to the effects of sea-level rise as it changes the value and ‘spirit of place’ for each site. International organisations, such as UNESCO, are aware of the risks of climate change, and ongoing monitoring is required to better understand exactly what heritage could be adversely affected by climate change and other natural hazards, and when this could occur.”

The authors have identified areas with urgent need for adaptation planning  and suggest the iconic nature of such sites can be used to promote awareness of the need to take action to mitigate climate change. In some cases relocation of individual monuments, such as the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna or The Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik, may be technically possible though not for other sites which extend over large areas such as urban centres, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes.

We suspect the White House to take no action, unless Donald Trump finally realizes his own hotels and golf courses may soon become water hazards. After all, the only history that matters to him is sexual and financial.

Climate change threatens oceans, food supplies


As the earth heats up, the oceans, the source of all life, are undergoing rapid, ominous changes capable of dramatically altering the context of human existence.

We begin with a briefing from the World Bank:

Billions of people worldwide —especially the world’s poorest— rely on healthy oceans to provide jobs and food, underscoring the urgent need to sustainably use and protect this natural resource.

According to the OECD, oceans contribute $1.5 trillion annually in value-added to the overall economy. The FAO estimates that around 60 million people are employed in fisheries and aquaculture, with the majority of those employed by capture fisheries working in small-scale operations in developing countries. In 2016, fisheries produced roughly 171 million tons of fish, with a “first sale” value estimated at US$362 billion,  generating over US$143 billion in exports. Moreover, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average intake of animal protein, even more in poor countries [emphases added].

Healthy oceans, coasts and freshwater ecosystems are crucial for economic growth and food production, but they are also fundamental to global efforts to mitigate climate change. “Blue carbon” sinks such as mangroves and other vegetated ocean habitats sequester 25 percent of the extra CO2 from fossil fuels and protect coastal communities from floods and storms. In turn, warming oceans and atmospheric carbon are causing ocean acidification that threatens the balance and productivity of the oceans.

While ocean resources have the potential to boost growth and wealth, human activity has taken a toll on ocean health. Fish stocks have deteriorated due to overfishing — the share of fish stocks outside biologically sustainable levels rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 32 percent in 2013, while in the same year approximately 57 percent of fish stocks were fully exploited. Fish stocks are affected by illicit fishing, which may account for up to 26 million tons of fish catches a year or more than 15 percent of total catches. . . Fish habitats are also under pressure from pollution, coastal development, and destructive fishing practices that undermine fish population rehabilitation efforts.

Oceans are also threatened by marine plastic pollution and each year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans, with microplastics becoming part of the food chain. Five countries produce the highest volumes of plastic waste and researchers estimate that a 75 percent reduction in plastics pollution in just China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam could reduce the flow of plastic into the ocean globally by almost 45 percent.

Threats from over-fishing

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2018 notes that “Zones of moderately heavy to heavy fishing intensity now wrap around every continent, affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas. This implies that fishing activities have exposed shallow coastal marine ecosystems to potential long-term damage, notably by trawling.” The report cites the particularly heavy intensification in the global South and East over the past six decades, with the greatest intensification in South East Asia.

This map from the report reflects the changes globally [click on the image to enlarge]:

AVERAGE ANNUAL CATCHES OF THE WORLD’S MARITIME FISHING COUNTRIES IN THE 1950s COMPARED TO THE 2000s.
Blue indicates zero or very minute catches, and yellow indicates light or no fishing. Zones of moderately heavy [ orange] to heavy fishing intensity [red] now wrap around every continent, affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas.
Almost 6 billion tons of fish and invertebrates [e.g. crustaceans and molluscs] have been extracted from the world’s oceans since 1950. Annual catch increased dramatically from 28 million tons in 1950 to more than 110 million tons in 2014. However, since peaking in 1996 at about 130 million tons, catch has been decreasing at an average rate of 1.2 million tons per year.

Coral reef bleaching levels hit new heights as seas warm

Marine coral reef bleaching may be the greatest immediate threat, as rising temperatures upset the balance of the delicate reefs which serve as breeding grounds for much of the fish so vital to the lives and livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest peoples. [Also see our previous posts on the subject]

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a look the recent escalation of the crisis and what it might mean:

Historically, global-scale coral bleaching has been associated with El Niño events, which generally raise global temperatures. The first mass coral bleaching was observed during the strong El Niño in 1983, and the first truly global event coincided with the strong El Niño of 1998. The world’s tropical reefs were stressed again during a moderate-strength 2010 El Niño.

The coral-bleaching event of 2014–2017 was unusual not just for its long duration, experts say, but also because it wasn’t entirely due to El Niño. Though an El Niño was anticipated in 2014, it didn’t really materialize until March 2015, yet bleaching-level heat stress was already well underway by that time. A strong El Niño arrived in 2016, and heat stress occurred at 51 percent of the world’s coral reefs into early 2017, when a La Niña was in place.

The 36-month heatwave and global bleaching event were exceptional in a variety of ways. For many reefs, this was the first time on record that they had experienced bleaching in two consecutive years. Many reefs—including those in Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii—experienced their worst bleaching ever documented. In the Northern Line Islands in the South Pacific, upwards of 98 percent of the coral at some reefs were killed. Reefs in the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that had never bleached before lost nearly 30 percent of their shallow water corals in 2016, while reefs a bit farther south lost another 22 percent in 2017.

All told, more than 75 percent of Earth’s tropical reefs experienced bleaching-level heat stress between 2014 and 2017, and at nearly 30 percent of reefs, it reached mortality level. The scientists summarized the event in stark terms:

More than half of affected reef areas were impacted at least twice. This global event has punctuated the recent acceleration of mass bleaching. Occurring at an average rate of once every 25–30 years in the 1980s, mass bleaching now returns about every six years and is expected to further accelerate…. Severe bleaching is now occurring more quickly than reefs can recover, with severe downstream consequences to ecosystems and people.

The accompanying map reveals the sheer extent of coral reef bleaching:

Many coral reefs experienced mass bleaching back-to-back in 2015 [top] and 2016 [bottom]. The likelihood of coral bleaching depends on how high the temperatures are above the annual monthly maximum and how long the unusual heat persists. Scientists track these conditions using satellite-based estimates of Degree Heating Weeks. Alert 1 means coral bleaching is likely. Alert 2 means widespread bleaching and significant mortality of corals are likely. Severe coral bleaching was reported in areas circled in white.

And to make matters worse, yet another heat spike is expected in the coming year, one that might be even worse.

Reef bleaching dramatically impacts fish behavior

Way back in out college days, an anthropology prof described the Three Fs of behavior: Feeding, Fucking, and Fighting. The three were often related, he added, as humans often fought for food and sex.

Fish, it seems, are much the same.

Professor Stéphan G. Reebs of Canada’s University of Monckton specializes in animal behavior and has written extensively about fish, including their aggressiveness, the focus of a 2008 paper:

Competition is a fact of life. It can take many forms, but biologists usually recognize two broad categories. In the first one, called exploitative or scramble competition, the contests are like races. The most food goes to the animal that eats the fastest, the best shelter is occupied by whoever reaches it first, and the largest share of eggs are fertilized by those males which produce the most sperm. There is usually little aggression displayed in such cases. However, in the second category, which is called interference or defense competition, animals fight among themselves for the right to monopolize food, to occupy alone a shelter or a territory, or to secure exclusive access to a mate.

And now we learn that coral reef bleaching has marked effects of fishy behavior, effects we suspect could have long-term cascading impacts on the world’s food supply.

From the University of Vermont:

A research team, including University of Vermont scientist Nate Sanders, found that when water temperatures heat up for corals, fish “tempers” cool down, providing the first clear evidence of coral bleaching serving as a trigger for rapid change in the behavior of reef fish.

Publishing in Nature Climate Change [$8.99 to read for non-subscribers],the researchers show how the iconic butterflyfish, considered to be sensitive indicators of reef health, can offer an early warning sign that reef fish populations are in trouble.

The international team of scientists spent more than 600 hours underwater observing butterflyfish over a two-year period encompassing the unprecedented mass coral bleaching event of 2016. Led by marine ecologist Sally Keith of Lancaster University, the team examined 17 reefs across the central Indo-Pacific in Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

During the initial data collection, the researchers were unaware that the catastrophic bleaching event was on the horizon. Once underway, the researchers realized that this serendipitous “natural experiment” placed them in a unique position to see how fish changed their behavior in response to large-scale bleaching disturbance.

The team sprang into action to repeat their field observations, collecting a total of 5,259 encounters between individuals of 38 different butterflyfish species. Within a year after the bleaching event, it was clear that, although the same number of butterflyfish continued to reside on the reefs, they were behaving very differently.

“We observed that aggressive behavior had decreased in butterflyfish by an average of two thirds, with the biggest drops observed on reefs where bleaching had killed off the most coral,” said Keith. “We think this is because the most nutritious coral was also the most susceptible to bleaching, so the fish moved from a well-rounded diet to the equivalent of eating only lettuce leaves—it was only enough to survive rather than to thrive.”

Early warning

“This matters because butterflyfishes are often seen as the ‘canaries of the reef,'” said Nate Sanders, director of UVM’s Environmental Program and professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “Due to their strong reliance on coral, they are often the first to suffer after a disturbance event.”

Such changes in behavior may well be the driver behind more obvious changes such as declining numbers of fish individuals and species. The finding has the potential to help explain the mechanism behind population declines in similarly disrupted ecosystems around the world.

By monitoring the fishes’ behavior, “we might get an early warning sign of bigger things to come,” said co-author Erika Woolsey of Stanford University. And the new work shows that  animals can adjust to catastrophic events in the short term through flexible behavior, “but these changes may not be sustainable in the longer-term,” said co-author Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

But it’s not a problem, right?

At least that’s what the White House would have us believe.

Map of the day: Warming’s agricultural impacts


A dramatic graphic capture’s one of the most immediate impacts of global warming, the shift of fertile agricultural regions toward the poles, as rising temperatures and declining rainfall render once-vibrant growing regions — realities certain to have profound economic and social impacts across the globe.

From the Arbor Day Foundation:

Much of the U. S. has been warmer in recent years, and that affects which trees are right for planting. The Arbor Day Foundation has recently completed an extensive updating of U.S. Hardiness Zones based upon data from 5,000 National Climatic Data Center cooperative stations across the continental United States.

For a dramatic animation of thsee changes, as well as others, see this page from Yale’s Envrionment 360.

Maps of the day: Climate change 1885-2014


A series 0f dramatic maps from NASA shows the decade-by-decade rapid rise in global temperatures over the past 129 years, with shaded areas representing temperature changes in degrees Celsius as compared to a 1950-1981 baseline [click on the images to enlarge]:

More from NASA:

The global temperature record represents an average over the entire surface of the planet. The temperatures we experience locally and in short periods can fluctuate significantly due to predictable cyclical events (night and day, summer and winter) and hard-to-predict wind and precipitation patterns. But the global temperature mainly depends on how much energy the planet receives from the Sun and how much it radiates back into space—quantities that change very little. The amount of energy radiated by the Earth depends significantly on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, particularly the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.

The maps above show temperature anomalies, or changes, not absolute temperature. They depict how much various regions of the world have warmed or cooled when compared with a base period of 1951-1980. (The global mean surface air temperature for that period was estimated to be 14°C (57°F), with an uncertainty of several tenths of a degree.) In other words, the maps show how much warmer or colder a region is compared to the norm for that region from 1951-1980.

Global temperature records start around 1880 because observations did not sufficiently cover enough of the planet prior to that time. The period of 1951-1980 was chosen largely because the U.S. National Weather Service uses a three-decade period to define “normal” or average temperature. The GISS temperature analysis effort began around 1980, so the most recent 30 years was 1951-1980. It is also a period when many of today’s adults grew up, so it is a common reference that many people can remember.

Here’s a NASA animation of temperature anomalies for the same period:

And our final NASA graphic reveals the dramatic spike in global carbon dioxide levels, one of the principal culprits:

And for our final graphic, the folks at Worldmapper have created a graphic depiction of the sources of the carbon dioxide omissions, shaded according to the millions of tons each country pours into the atmosphere: