Chandrika Sharma and ICSF

March 25th, 2014

Most of the best leadership and action related to many of the stresses now plaguing our planet comes from international NGOs.

Sorting shrimp in Bagladesh. Small scale coastal fisheries vary immensely, but all need support (consult-poseidon.com)

Sorting shrimp in Bagladesh. Small scale coastal fisheries vary immensely, but all need support (consult-poseidon.com)

An effective example is The International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF). In the face of the calamitous impact of offshore, industrial fishing fleets, its ambitious mission is “to support fishing communities and fishworker organizations, and empower them to participate in fisheries from a perspective of decent work, equity, gender-justice, self-reliance and sustainability”.

ICSF encourages the development and protection of small scale fisheries, like this one in Cambodia (flikr.com)

ICSF encourages the development and protection of small scale fisheries, like this one in Cambodia (flikr.com)

It started up 28 years ago and now involves coastal fishing communities around Southeast Asia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and East Africa. The ongoing challenge continues to be to achieve recognition of the importance of small-scale fisheries, fishworkers and fishing communities.

One of its publications is An Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries that emphasizes the need for balancing human wellbeing and ecological wellbeing, for application of both the adaptive and precautionary approaches, for recognition of the value traditional knowledge, and for community participation in co-management.

This truly identifies the needs and hopes of the coastal fisheries of the whole world.

Chandrika Sharma was Executive Secretary of ICSF. She was a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, on her way from KL to Beijing and then on to Mongolia where she would have represented ICSF at the 32nd Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific.

Chandrika Sharma

Chandrika Sharma

We so need rational, articulate, committed, persistent and well-informed social activists like Chandrika Sharma to give us at least some hope in these increasingly perilous times.

Losing her is distressing for too many reasons.
I wish that I had known her.

Grassroots Alternative

March 12th, 2014

How do we achieve a global response to the challenges of climate change? How do we protect the planet from the risks of global change?

Arguments built on evidence-based science of course are essential, but they are also clearly insufficient. More evidence isn’t going to sway the deniers or the oil and energy corporations.

Better leadership is always worth pursuing, and some good leaders do exist, but the process of changing poor leaders for good ones is painfully slow, unpredictable, and anything but inevitable – no matter whether we look at the US, Canada, Russia or China.

unfccc

The UN would seem to be a likely forum, with its annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings – but these are highly politicized and very frustrating meetings of government representatives, and exclude the representatives of the many NGOs and civil organizations that are forced to meet around the edges and have very little influence.

At every annual COP meeting, Canada has received 'Fossil of the Day Awards' for its abysmal action and leadership in dealing with climate change (climateactionnetwork.ca)

At every annual COP meeting, Canada has received ‘Fossil of the Day Awards’ for its abysmal action and leadership in dealing with climate change (climateactionnetwork.ca)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is calling together what he hopes will be a more inclusive Climate Summit in NYC in 2014, and perhaps it will do better, but too many of the government players remain the same.

The 2)the annual Conference of the Parties, COP 20, organized by the UNFCCC will be held in Peru this year (mocicc.org)

The 2)the annual Conference of the Parties, COP 20, organized by the UNFCCC will be held in Peru this year (mocicc.org)

We clearly need something more – more global, more representative of civil views as well as those of scientists and NGOs.

A proposal has emerged from several directions: we need an annual conference along the lines of the International AIDS Conference, with the intent of provoking global cooperation to protect the climate.

Like the IAC it would include scientists, NGOs, and representatives of civil society, but not the UN and not individual governments. Like the IAC, it would be a forum for sharing information, for developing policy, for advocacy, a place where we can encourage action and where we can also call out nations and corporations that are behaving badly, like Canada.

The International AIDS Society has also been holding annual AIDS conferences for 20 years. AIDS 2014 will be held in Melbourne, with 20,000 delegates expected. (iasociety.org)

The International AIDS Society has also been holding annual AIDS conferences for 20 years. AIDS 2014 will be held in Melbourne, with 20,000 delegates expected. (iasociety.org)

This is not an impossible dream. The IAC started small and has grown huge. It has effected important changes. Obviously there are many differences, not the least being the sense of immediate and personal medical urgency that has driven the IAC.

Still, the urgency we face with the risks of climate change gets greater every year. To deal with them, we need global cooperation. So far the UN conferences and other government gatherings have achieved little of substance. We need another route to building a global voice.

Why don’t we start up a Global Conference on the Risks of Climate Change? It needs to come from us, a grass roots initiative that ignores governments and corporations.

It can start as small as it has to, but why not start?

Why not? (le-mot-juste-en-anglais-typepad.com)

Why not? (le-mot-juste-en-anglais-typepad.com)

Unexpected Leadership

February 26th, 2014

We need outspoken leaders who understand the risks of climate change and who can reach a global audience, willing to prod inactive governments and counteract the corporate power and cynicism of the oil companies.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is certainly expressing the appropriate concern about the risks, but with the US Congress still in denial, his voice is too easy to ignore.

Every winter the smog in northern China reaches hazardous levels. This month is worse than ever. It can't continue. (earthspacenews.com)

Every winter the smog in northern China reaches hazardous levels. This month is worse than ever. It can’t continue. (earthspacenews.com)

We still await climate change leadership to emerge in other high C-emitting countries such as China. Meanwhile countries that should have become climate change leaders have instead become international embarrassments: Australia has ditched its cap-and-trade policy, while the anti-science, pro-oil actions of the government of Canada continue to expand.

Canadian Rick Mercer rants about the muzzling of scientists by the government of Canada (cbc.ca)

Canadian Rick Mercer rants about the muzzling of scientists by the government of Canada (cbc.ca)

So it is refreshing, surprising, and maybe even hopeful to have Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, speaking out over the past few months about the serious risks and costs of climate change. Kim, a physician, anthropologist and past president of Dartmouth is the first with any training in science to hold the position.

The World Bank is a UN international financial institution. It gives out loans to developing countries with a primary mission of reducing poverty. It doles out about 20 billion US dollars per year, which sounds like a lot, but that’s about what Facebook just paid for Whatsapp. It also gets its share of criticisms for how it operates and and how it manages the money.

What Kim has done in his recent speeches is to emphasize the link between the impact of climate change and poverty.

“Unless the world takes bold action now, a disastrously warming planet threatens to put prosperity out of reach of millions and roll back decades of development. Those least able to adapt – the poor and vulnerable – will be hit hardest.”

Kim talks a lot about the financial costs of climate change, and how much cheaper it is to make changes now rather than face the far greater costs 30 or 40 years from now. He reminds us that cities are the source of 2/3 of our CO2 emissions, and that among our challenges now is to make them low-carbon, and climate-resilient.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim speaks out on the impact of climate change (the guardian.com)

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim speaks out on the impact of climate change (the guardian.com)

A few weeks ago Kim announced ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new appointment.
“The appointment of Michael R. Bloomberg as a Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change to the United Nations should be applauded from Beijing to Rio to Mumbai. His selection is a huge boost for global leadership efforts to combat climate change.” And so it should be.

Kim speaks of all this as a paradigm shift, a time of transformational change.

How do we get there?

A meeting was held at Bali this month, initiated by the World Bank and Jim Yong King, to develop the Green Climate Fund, designed  to encourage low C investments and clean energy solutions in developing countries (chimalaya.com) .

A meeting was held at Bali this month, initiated by the World Bank and Jim Yong King, to develop the Green Climate Fund, designed to encourage low C investments and clean energy solutions in developing countries (chimalaya.com) .

And a final quote from Kim:
“Tackling climate change is not an effort that governments can take on alone. We need a response that brings together governments, private sector, civil society, and individuals, following a coordinated, ambitious plan. We can help in many ways, but perhaps most fruitfully by highlighting the increasing costs of climate change and by mobilizing climate finance from the public and private sectors.”

And that’s the problem. We haven’t figured out yet how to create such a response, but create one we must.

Cultural Cognition

February 17th, 2014

It doesn’t seem to matter which topic we choose – climate change, evolution, gun control, gm organisms, nanotechnology, vaccine use, incarceration methods and sentences, tobacco smoking – all have resulted in angry and polarized confrontations.

Why does this occur over and over again?

Dan Kahan at Yale has done a number of quite extensive studies, both experimental and survey based, looking at a variety of topics, trying to address this question.

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

In one study he asked his subjects how much risk climate change poses for human health, safety or prosperity. As in all his studies, the sample size was large enough that he could test for age, gender, race, class, education, political party, and cultural world view.

What did he find? For gender, race, class or age, no correlations.

What about degree of science literacy and numeracy? Not only not correlated, but in fact an increase in science literacy and numeracy magnified the polarization of views, perhaps quite the opposite of what you might have expected.

Surely political affiliation was correlated? Only barely: the typical political orientation of a person dismissing the risks of climate change was an Independent just right of center, while that of one who considered the risks to be great was an Independent just left of center.

Only one’s cultural world view strongly predicted the sense of environmental risk. People whose world views were simultaneously more hierarchical (authority respected) and individualistic (individual initiative prized) tended to dismiss the evidence of environmental risk, while those whose values were more egalitarian and communitarian considered the risks to be unacceptable.

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn't (demunderground.com)

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn’t (demunderground.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn't help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn’t help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Kahan concludes that no matter what the evidence may be, we actually make our own decisions based on what he calls ‘cultural cognition’.

For example, each of us knows that as an individual there is little that we can do to alleviate the effects of climate change, yet at the same time we know that if we take a position on the question that is in conflict with that of our peers, we face the real repercussions of their anger, abuse, disapproval, dismissal, even shunning. Weighing the comparative risks, most of us accept the peer pressure, reject arguments we might otherwise accept, and survive intact in our social communities.

Kahan’s other studies have very similar results. Is all of this surprising? Maybe not. But it does mean that in many situations evidence-based arguments will not prevail.

Kahan proposes that the real challenge then is how to communicate good science in ways that reduce the polarization. For instance in the case of the climate change debate, focusing on alternative energy sources and possible geo-engineering solutions might be helpful. Involving diverse ‘communicators’ apparently may also make a difference.

Of course this isn’t saying that all extremists can be induced to moderate their views. And Kahan’s suggested solutions still look weak. But the problem before us now is clearer: we make some of our important decisions based on our ideologies, not on evidence. More evidence, more clearly presented, may not be the solution.

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)


Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca) These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks of climate change than women or people of other races.

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca)
These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks than women or people of other races.

Kahan’s conclusions are at least based on evidence-based arguments. Now we need unusual ways to communicate them or we probably won’t accept them anyway.

What if we’re just not smart enough to find ways to moderate our polarized positions? That really is too bleak to contemplate. Kahan’s ‘truth’ may be partial, but surely it is worth pursuing.

An Unusual Mortality of Bottlenose Dolpnins

January 24th, 2014
Bottlenose Dolphins are intelligent, social, long-lived, and alien (earthlyissues.com)

Bottlenose Dolphins are intelligent, social, long-lived, and alien (earthlyissues.com)

A lot of Bottlenose Dolphins have washed up dead or dying on the shores of the US east coast. Starting last summer, and increasing month by month, about a thousand have been found. Many others have certainly died offshore. The deaths were first noticed on the beaches of New Jersey and New York. As the migratory populations have shifted south through the autumn and winter, dead animals have now stranded on beaches as far south as Florida.

Bottlenose dolphin strandings have been very high since July. Blue indicaes the average number stranded in each state from 2007-2012, red the number stranded since July 2013 (noaa)

Bottlenose Dolphin strandings have been very high since July. Blue indicates the average number stranded in each state from 2007-2012, red the number stranded since July 2013 (noaa)

What’s going on here?

NOAA has labelled this an Unusual Mortality Event, though such events really are not that unusual. Sixty marine mammal UMEs have occurred in US waters since 1991, and this is the 12th on the east coast since then. It may, though, be the biggest yet recorded.

Bottlenose Dolphins live in warm temperate waters around the world. Along the east coast of the the US they live in distinct migratory and resident coastal populations, a total of about 40,000 dolphins, that may or may not intermix at times. A larger offshore population, another 80,000 animals, live out along the edge of the Continental Shelf, and they may also sometimes intermix with the coastal populations. We really don’t know much about these interactions.

Distinct populations of Bottlenose Dolphins, two of them migratory and at least three of them resident, live along the US east coast. Larger offshore populations live along the edge of the Continental Shelf (noaa.gov)

Distinct populations of Bottlenose Dolphins, two of them migratory and at least three of them resident, live along the US east coast. Larger offshore populations live along the edge of the Continental Shelf (noaa.gov)

It would be good to know, for the dolphins are dying from infection by cetacean morbillivirus, which is a kind of measles virus. It is highly contagious, and though several stranded Humpback Whales carried the virus, so far it seems to be restricted to Bottlenose Dolphins. It doesn’t jump to humans, but it’s probably best not to grub around inside a dead animal without protection. And best if your dog doesn’t chew on one.

The infections and deaths will continue through the winter and should then diminish – assuming that past infections such as the the last major one 25 years ago are typical.

How many may die? If the infections are mostly occurring in just one of the migratory populations, then the impact on that population could be great. These are long lived, highly social, tightly organized and very intelligent animals, and 10 or 20% mortality would be very disruptive. And it could be more. It could spread to other populations. Or it could just peter out.

The Cetacean Morbillivirus kills Bottlenose Dolphins, but feeds vultures (sbs.com)

The Cetacean Morbillivirus kills Bottlenose Dolphins, but feeds vultures (sbs.com)

The question of course is why has this happened? Does it mean anything?

The last outbreak of the virus was in 1987-88 when 700 bottlenose dolphins died on the east coast. Perhaps they get hit by this virus the way we get hit by the flu virus. Then it is basically a common and trivial event, and we note it and move on.

Possibly instead it has been caused by human agent – perhaps some coastal pollution has reduced immune defenses to infection by the virus. But too little is known about the infection to support or reject this, let alone detect a causal polluting agent. Even if it true, the disease should disappear in the spring, we’ll remain ignorant, and then we’ll forget all about it.

The bleakest scenario is that the deaths are an indication of the decreasing long-term health of coastal waters, that the disease will spread to other populations of Bottlenose Dolphins and other species of cetaceans and seals, and that we have another growing disaster unfolding. Would we then be driven to take action, and clean things up? Not likely.

So why do we care?

Bottlenose Dolphins are the most familiar of dolphins – familiar from old TV shows and marine aquariums around the world where they jump around for the entertainment, but hardly the education, of the audiences. The species is an icon of the wild, where dolphins leap out of the water in what appears to be the sheer exuberance of living.

The reality? We know little about them, we are not their friends, and they aren’t ours. They die on our coasts, in our fishing nets, and in Taiji in Japan they are still captured for aquariums and slaughtered annually for food.

Their mouth is shaped in a way that looks to us like a smile.

It is no smile.

Iconic Bottlenose Dolphins (hdwpapers.com)

Iconic Bottlenose Dolphins (hdwpapers.com)

Fishing for the Army in North Korea

January 16th, 2014

What with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s recent execution of his uncle Jang Sung Thaek, not to mention Dennis Rodman’s crazed basketball undiplomacy, North Korea has been in the news again. Though Jang’s execution certainly indicates political power conflicts we know little about, it also has called attention to the very unusual ways that fisheries and other businesses are managed in North Korea.

An infrared image of the Korean peninsula at night. North Korea is mostly dark. Fishing boats of other nations cluster along 200 mile limit (akbizmag.com).

An infrared image of the Korean peninsula at night. North Korea is mostly dark. Fishing boats of other nations cluster along 200 limits (akbizmag.com).

In North Korea, an ‘army first’ policy continues to dominate economic affairs, yet the army is not funded by a central budget. Instead the military owns companies, organizations, and their banks, and funds itself from their profits. Various fisheries are among those companies. Fishing companies supply the military directly with fish to feed the very hungry soldiers, and they also produce some of the few products – like clams and crabs – that they can sell for international currency (the Chinese are the only trading partner left), and the profits go to the military.

Different government agencies own different companies, so there is conflict among the agencies for access to those companies. When Kim Jong Un inherited power two years ago, he gave control of the fish trade to his cabinet to promote the economy. Uncle Jang grabbed it, consolidated his companies, and gathered the profits for himself and his political interests.

But then a few months ago, Kim Jong Un saw some his soldiers going very hungry, and ordered the return of control of the fisheries to the military. The soldiers sent to carry out the order were met with stiff resistance by men loyal to uncle Jang, a few were killed, and the military backed off. The Supreme Leader was furious, sent in more soldiers, regained control of the fisheries, executed two of Jang’s top aides, then arrested and quickly executed uncle Jang as well.

Since the Dec 12 execution, Kim Jong Un has enthusiastically encouraged army regulars to fish on the side. And the only management strategy of fisheries that appears to exist is his exhortation for fishermen to fish ever harder to feed and fund the army.

Supreme leader Kim Jong Un inspects a storage facility for frozen squid, not long after executing his uncle Jang (independent.co.com)

Supreme leader Kim Jong Un inspects a storage facility for frozen squid, not long after executing his uncle Jang (independent.co.com)

In recent weeks a couple of North Korean fishing boats have drifted into South Korean waters. One had no crew or fuel. The other had a few crew and no fuel – it had drifted for a month since it left port with insufficient fuel to go very far and it got caught in winds and currents, leaving the crew to try to survive on whatever fish they could then catch. At least they were fishermen.

North Korean fishing boat that drifted into south Korean waters in early January (koreajoongangdaily.joins.com).

North Korean fishing boat drifted into south Korean waters in early January(koreajoongangdaily.joins.com).

So Fishermen in North Korea fish for the army. Any profits go to the army. The army depends on the profits from the fisheries as well as from other companies to fund itself. Regulations on fishing do not exist, but fishermen are encouraged to fish for quotas they cannot reach, and their supervisors are expected to report when they meet their quotas. Fishing boats are small, underequipped, and access to sufficient fuel is one of many challenges. Fishing is very hard.

And it gets harder. Last week reports surfaced of another event. A couple of fishing boats, with 22 crew including some women, crossed into into South Korean waters and were picked up by a South Korean patrol boat. When questioned, the North Koreans denied they were seeking asylum, so the South Koreans sent them home overland. When they arrived, they were all shot. True? The scanty sources seem reliable, and have not yet been denied. What is true is that we think this is all too possible.

Such conflicts and deaths are collateral damage of an irrational and absurd way to manage fisheries.

The rest of us should truly appreciate our own methods of fisheries management, no matter their flaws.

Little news gets out of North Korea (nationalpost.com)

Little news gets out of North Korea (nationalpost.com)

Myths of the Giant Oarfish

December 11th, 2013

Giant Oarfish (Regalecus glesne) have been in the news again recently. Two washed up dead on the coast of California in October, one at Santa Catalina, the other near San Diego. They are lousy swimmers, and probably got caught in coastal currents they couldn’t fight successfully.

A dead giant oarfish is still a remarkable thing. These two were 4-5 meters long, but they can grow to as long as 11-12 meters No other bony fish species grows longer.

About 20 men holding up one giant oarfish (wikipedia.com)

About 20 men holding up one giant oarfish (wikipedia.com)

They are also rarely seen by humans, so every corpse is a new source of amazement. Normally the fish are pelagic, living well off shore, probably usually in deep water – their large eyes suggests adaptation to the deep dim world a few hundred meters below the surface.

And there the mystery of this fish remains. Cruising through the science articles that mention them usually just describe another dead animal that has washed up somewhere new.

The little information we have suggests they spend their time hovering vertically in the water, propelled slowly by a long and undulating dorsal fin while the rest of the body doesn’t move. You really need to see this to believe it: a robot camera captured one a couple of years ago.

Dead medium sized oarfish lying beside living child. The long dorsal fin is typically red (strangesounds.org)

Dead medium sized oarfish lying beside living child. The long dorsal fin is typically red (strangesounds.org)

We know they they are toothless, lack scales, and have small mouths. As they hover vertically, they are probably feeding, sucking in plankton and euphausids or krill and straining them from the water they push through their gill-rakers. Perhaps they somehow eat small fish. They certainly can’t chase down prey, and they grow too large to be prey for most other fish besides sharks. Somehow they don’t turn up in fishermen’s nets very often, and in fact seem able to avoid the nets.

A living oarfish, rarely seen (ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com)

A living oarfish, rarely seen (ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com)

What else? Their meat tastes mushy, gelatinous, so they are safe from human predation. There are perhaps 4 different oarfish species of different sizes around the world. They have been observed, usually dead, most often in warm-temperate waters. An old quote: “A dead oarfish is about as tough as wet cardboard.”

A very small juvenile oarfish, a very rare find. Captive,offered for sale, it soon died (reefbuilders.com).

A very small juvenile oarfish, a very rare find. Captive, offered for sale, it soon died (reefbuilders.com).

And the myths? Perhaps they change gender as they grow larger (many fish do). Perhaps they shed the ends of their tails the way some lizards do (maybe the ends just fall off more quickly from dead animals). Perhaps they are the source of mariners’ tales of huge sea serpents (those seen at the surface are usually sick or dying, and could perhaps have inspired the mariners). Perhaps they are especially sensitive to Earth tremors – for example, before the 2011 tsunami in Japan, 20 beached themselves and died (who knows?).

Probably none of these are true, but we really lack the facts that dispel most myths.

What we have here is a most bizarre fish, rarely observed alive and healthy, of no commercial value to us. It probably isn’t endangered, though it certainly is not abundant. It shares this planet with us, mostly out of our view, which is the safest place for it to be. It is a reminder that life on Earth is incredibly diverse, and that not only do we not know everything about everything, but that in fact perhaps we don’t need to know.

It just is.

Eemian Evidence

December 8th, 2013

So what do we really know?

We’re deep in an Ice Age, the third that has occurred in the past half billion years. In between Ice Ages, the Earth has been very warm, in its ‘hot-house’ phase, with high sea levels and free of glaciers and ice caps.

The Ice Ages that preceded ours occurred 290 and 440 million years ago. Note that the time scale is more compressed on the left(acer-acre.ca)

The Ice Ages that preceded ours occurred 290 and 440 million years ago. Note that the time scale is more compressed on the left(acer-acre.ca)

Our Ice Age began 2.6 million years ago, caused at least in part by the drift of Antarctica to cover the southern polar region, and the northern continents closing off much of the Arctic Ocean. Without cold polar water easily mixing with warm tropical water, polar ice caps and glaciers formed and grew, and the global average temperature dropped from about 22 degrees C to about 12 degrees C.

plate_history_lge classroomatsea.net

The continents drift endlessly, slowly, on 12 plates driven by convection currents in the magma below the Earth’s crust (classroomatsea.net)

During our Ice Age glacial and interglacial periods have cycled regularly. We’re in an interglacial period now, but even the interglacial periods are cool – the ice caps just retreat, they don’t completely melt, for cold polar water is still trapped in the Arctic and around Antarctica.

In our current Ice Age, glacial and interglacial periods cycle with remarkable regularity (atala.fr)

In our current Ice Age, glacial and interglacial periods cycle with remarkable regularity (atala.fr)

Our interglacial period, which we’ve named the Holocene Interglacial, started about 12,000 years ago. Probably not merely coincidentally, while we as a species have evolved over the whole time of this Ice Age, our explosion into whatever it is we are now began with the onset of the Holocene Interglacial.

Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 and Methane levels over the past four cylces of glacial and interglacial periods (eoearth.org)

Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 and Methane levels over the past four cylces of glacial and interglacial periods (eoearth.org)

We have also learned much from the analysis the last interglacial, the Eemian Interglacial, which began 130,000 years ago and lasted for about 20 thousand years. An ice core drilled into the northern Greenland ice sheet reached down to bedrock through 2.5km of ice, and back 250,000 years. The drilling took three years, the analysis another year, and the results were published in Nature last January.

The NEEM ice core was taken from the northeern part of the ice sheet where the deepest ice is 250,000 years old (neem.dk)

The NEEM ice core was taken from the northeern part of the ice sheet where the deepest ice is 250,000 years old (neem.dk)

In the Eemian Interglacial, global average temperatures were about 4 degrees C warmer than our current global average; CO2 levels rose to about 320 parts per million, sea levels rose about 6-8 meters higher than present, and the Greenland ice sheet melted from about 200m higher than present to about 130 lower than it is now. Since the Greenland ice sheet didn’t all melt during the Eemian Interglacial, the rest of the sea level increase must have come from the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Knowing all this, what can we truly predict about our future? We have clear models from the recent and from the more distant past of what the possible outcomes actually would be.

With atmospheric CO2 levels as high as they are at present, 393 ppm as of October, we can expect the global average temperature to become at least a few degrees warmer, and sea levels to rise at least a few more meters.

Average global temperature tracks CO2 levels over the past 400,000 years. Our Holocene Interglacial is on the extreme right, and our CO2 levels are striking (icecore_records-sympatico.ca)

Average global temperature tracks CO2 levels over the past 400,000 years. Our Holocene Interglacial is on the extreme right, and our CO2 levels are striking (icecore_records-sympatico.ca)

If CO2 levels continue to rise, as they are likely to do, we may force the Earth prematurely out of this Ice Age and back to its hothouse phase, over-riding the impact of continental drift in keeping the poles cold.

Obviously this is an ever changing planet, whether or not we are here to ride it out, and any sense we have that it is stable, benign or in any kind of equilibrium is shear delusion on our part.

But we have increased the pace of change, and this is going to be quite a trip. There are an awful lot of us on the planet, and if the changes happen as quickly as all the graphs from the past indicate they will, the human cost of the upheaval is going to be huge.

Of course we can adapt, but we need more time to do so without excessive misery.
We still do have the potential to limit both the extent and the pace of global warming.

Celebrating the last piece of ice core, extracted from 2.5 km below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (neem.dk)

Celebrating the last piece of ice core, extracted from 2.5 km below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (neem.dk)

Warming the Deep Cold Ocean

November 27th, 2013

The global mean surface temperature has been increasing very slowly, if at all, for the past 10-15 years, even though levels of CO2 emissions continue to rise, sea levels continue to rise, Arctic ice continues to thin, and ocean acidification continues to increase.

Sea level measurements have become increasingly detailed and reliable (epa.gov)

Sea level measurements have become increasingly detailed and reliable (epa.gov)

Since global mean surface temperatures aren’t rising as expected, where has the heat gone?

We have known for a while that about 90% of the extra heat energy absorbed by the Earth goes into warming the seas, which then contribute in complex ways to increasing the global mean surface temperatures. So the missing heat has got to be somewhere in the oceans.

Dense, saline, cold water sinks in the North Atlantic and near the West Antarctic Peninsula, driving the global exchange of water and its heat (wikipedia.org)

Dense, saline, cold water sinks in the North Atlantic and near the West Antarctic Peninsula, driving the global exchange of water and its heat (wikipedia.org)

The slow global circulation of ocean water, known as the Global Conveyor but also as Thermohaline Circulation and more recently as the Meridional Overturning Circulation, plays a huge role in keeping the planet climate relatively stable and in general equilibrium.

What drives this global circulation? Sea water gets denser as it gets colder, reaching its maximum density not at 4 degrees C like freshwater, but at its coldest unfrozen state at -1.8 degrees C. Only in the very highest latitudes, in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean near the West Antarctic Peninsula, does it remain saline enough and get cold and dense enough to sink into abyssal depths in the deep ocean basins 4km or more below the surface.

View from the South Pole of the Global Conveyor or Meridional Overturning Circulation (wikipedia.org)

View from the South Pole of the Global Conveyor or Meridional Overturning Circulation (wikipedia.org)

The sinking of this very cold and saline water drives the global circulation. The deep cold water flows slowly toward lower latitudes, rises or upwells for a variety of reasons and becomes the warmer surface waters, driven into familiar currents by winds and tides.

Very cold saline water (blue) sinks, flows along the basin bottom, is forced toward the surface (green) and then becomes the warm surface current (red) (nature.com)

Very cold saline water (blue) sinks, flows along the basin bottom, is forced toward the surface (green) and then becomes the warm surface current (red)(nature.com)

A great deal of data has now been gathered about the temperatures and salinity levels of ocean waters from all depths around the planet, including from the Southern Ocean that rings the Antarctic. They tell us that the deep ocean water mass around Antarctica, particularly near the West Antarctic Peninsula, is getting warmer and it is freshening. This warming and freshening of the deep cold water has now also been tracked north in all directions to around 30 degrees South latitude.

Deep cold water flows north toward the equator in all the oceans (nature.com)

Deep cold water flows north toward the equator in all the oceans (nature.com)

So that is what has changed. Much of the missing heat, along with West Antarctic glacial melt water, has gone into the deepest, densest, coldest basins of the oceans, rather that into its surface waters.

It will not stay there for long. Further data indicate the mass of the cold dense bottom water is shrinking, and its rate of flow is slowing. These are not reassuring changes.

Still, we have learned that the increasing heat on planet Earth is not only absorbed by surface waters, resulting in a relatively rapid warming of global mean surface temperatures, but that it can also be absorbed first in the high latitudes by very cold water and transported into deeper layers of the ocean. Surface temperatures may then not rise as soon or quickly, but the planet continues to warm anyway, and the long-term impact will be profound.

Ships and satellites are collecting ever more data. If nothing else, the development of this dramatic change in global climate will be incredibly well documented. Perhaps at some point the weight of evidence will be sufficient to push us into effective response.

Meanwhile, last month 140 boats sailed together from San Francisco to the tip of Baja and back. One of the boats first sailed over from Sweden, taking the Northwest Passage to get to the Pacific.

Good Models for Failing EU Fisheries

November 11th, 2013

The continuing experiment that is the EU ought to be a model of progress for the world, and perhaps in some ways it is, a response to the cries of ‘Never Again’ that rose up at the end of the 2nd World War. But in regulating its fisheries, protecting its fish from over-exploitation, it has clearly failed.

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the european Union is huge, one of the largest, with 25 million square km (wikipedia.org)

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the european Union is huge, one of the largest, with 25 million square km (wikipedia.org)

Still, after decades of efforts, some progress occurred over the past few weeks, resulting in a general ban on discards or bycatch, and greater regulation of individual fisheries to meet the minimum requirements of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) management. Considering the various conflicting needs of so many nations, this is good news.

Atlantic cod stocks are ever closer to oblivion in the North Sea (bbc.co.uk)

Atlantic cod stocks are ever closer to oblivion in the North Sea (bbc.co.uk)

On the other hand, it is a disappointing outcome. It targets a 5% discard rate rather than zero, implemented gradually over the next decade, and some species will still be exempt. It should have banned all deep-water bottom-trawling, but instead proposes not to trawl sites that are identified as particularly vulnerable. Left undecided is how to enforce the new regulations and how to fund the enforcement. Meanwhile subsidies persist for a fleet that is 2-3 times as large as it should be.

Opposition to stronger outcomes came from Spain and France, and from industrial-sized vessels, all of which think they will be harmed even by the limited new regulations: they maintain the changes will happen too quickly, will be too hard to implement, and will be too expensive.

They are wrong. There are quite a few examples elsewhere that the EU could look to.

Atlantic cod - mostly gone from the North-west Atlantic, almost gone from the North Sea, is doing well in the North-east Atlantic (umn.edu)

Atlantic cod – mostly gone from the North-west Atlantic, almost gone from the North Sea, is doing well in the North-east Atlantic (umn.edu)

One is nearby, in Norway, not a member of the EU. Twenty five years ago, in response to dwindling cod stocks, Norway initiated a zero discard policy. More selective gear was used – letting smaller fish escape rather than become bycatch, and some fishing grounds were closed, particularly where the smaller fish were more common. To enforce the ban on discards, vessels have been closely monitored.

The Arctic or Norwegian cod population is in good shape, protected by  tight regulations (imr.no)

The Arctic or Norwegian cod population is in good shape, protected by tight regulations (imr.no)

As fish populations have recovered, catch sizes have increased. Norway also emphasizes ecosystem-based management, science-based decisions on quotas, and precautionary approaches – approaches hard to find in the new EU agreements. And if Norway can do it, so can the EU, as the Norwegians like to point out.

Another example is from the central coast of California. Fishing, including bottom-trawling, pretty well ceased in Moro Bay, south of Monterrey, for all the usual reasons. But then the Nature Conservancy proposed a new approach. With the agreement of the fishermen of Moro Bay, they bought up all the trawl fishing licenses, and the fishermen either left the fishery, or have leased permits back from the Conservancy. The intent – and the outcome – has been to support, yet reduce the level of trawling to a sustainable level, and to try to mitigate its impact.

A brown pelican in Morro Bay celebrates the new fishery regulations there. (flickr.com)

A brown pelican in Morro Bay celebrates the new fishery regulations there. (flickr.com)

And there’s more. In 2005, with the involvement of the fishermen and the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund mediated the designation of 3.8 million acres of coastal waters on the central coast as a no-trawling zone. Not the whole coast but a compromise intended to support fishing, and fishing communities, at a reduced but sustainable level.

Large areas off the central coast of California are now designated as no-trawl zones (edg.org)

Large areas off the central coast of California are now designated as no-trawl zones (edg.org)

The partnership has involved fishermen, community leaders, scientists, and state and federal agencies. This appears to be true co-management. And it is another model that can be exported, if only oppositional lobbyists can be successfully induced to recognize the need to compromise. When the alternative becomes a much wider ban on trawling, compromise is the only option.

We know now that bycatch can be eliminated. Trawling can be limited and regulated. Deep-water trawling can be banned. Enforcement is feasible. Subsidies can be used judiciously, even eliminated. Fleet size can be reduced. Cooperation among all the players is achievable. Ecosystem-based management is possible.

And then fishing is actually sustainable.

So listen up, EU. At stake is the sustainability, the viability of fish stocks in European waters.