Scientists are ‘exaggerating carbon threat to reefs and marine life’

The article below points  out something that I have often reported, that coral reefs are not easily damaged, bounce back well from damage and can be found in a wide range of water temperatures.  One lot even bounced back after being hit with a thermonuclear detonation!

I have for some time now been collecting on one site all the stories I see about coral reefs and a browse through that site will show you what I mean.  The academic journal article underlying the report below is here

An ‘inherent bias’ in scientific journals in favour of more calamitous predictions has excluded research showing that marine creatures are not damaged by ocean acidification.

Claims that coral reefs are doomed because human emissions are making the oceans more acidic have been exaggerated, a review of the science has found.

An “inherent bias” in scientific journals in favour of more calamitous predictions has excluded research showing that marine creatures are not damaged by ocean acidification, which is caused by the sea absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It has been dubbed the “evil twin of climate change” and hundreds of studies have claimed to show that it destroys coral reefs and other marine life by making it harder for them to develop shells or skeletons.

The review found that many studies had used flawed methods, subjecting marine creatures to sudden increases in carbon dioxide that would never be experienced in real life.

“In some cases it was levels far beyond what would ever be reached even if we burnt every molecule of carbon on the planet,” Howard Browman, the editor of ICES Journal of Marine Science, who oversaw the review, said.

He added that this had distracted attention from more urgent threats to reefs such as agricultural pollution, overfishing and tourism.

Dr Browman, who is also principal research scientist at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, found there had been huge increase in articles on ocean acidification in recent years, rising from five in 2005 to 600 last year.

He said that a handful of influential scientific journals and lobbying by international organisations had turned ocean acidification into a major issue.

“Such journals tend to publish doom and gloom stories ... stated without equivocation,” he said. The bias in favour of doom-laden articles was partly the result of pressure on scientists to produce eye-catching work, he added.

“You won’t get a job unless you publish an article that is viewed as of significant importance to society. People often forget that scientists are people and have the same pressures on them and the same kind of human foibles. Some are driven by different things. They want to be prominent.”

Dr Browman invited scientists around the world to contribute studies on ocean acidification for a special edition of his journal. More than half of the 44 studies selected for publication found that raised levels of CO2 had little or no impact on marine life, including crabs, limpets, sea urchins and sponges.

Dr Browman said that the edition had demonstrated that there was “a body of work out there that people had difficulty publishing elsewhere” and that “not every study shows that Nemo is going to be doomed”, a reference to the reef-dwelling clownfish in the Disney film Finding Nemo.

The term ocean acidification was also a misnomer, he said, because it suggested that the oceans could become acidic instead of alkaline.

“The oceans will never become acid because there is such a huge buffering capacity in the oceans. We simply could never release enough CO2 into the atmosphere to cause the pH to go below 7 [the point in the pH scale at which a solution becomes acidic].

“If they had called it something else, such as ‘lower alkalinity’, it wouldn’t have been as catchy,” he said.

Dr Browman, a marine scientist for 35 years, said he was not saying that ocean acidification posed no threat, but that he believed that “a higher level of academic scepticism” should be applied to the topic.


Hoagy strikes back -- rejecting the above claims

Hoagy is the go-to man about coral at the University of Queensland -- and a fervent Warmist.  He has come out of his shell in order to hype up alarm about Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  He went quiet for a while when his own research showed the reef to be very resilient but he seems to have recovered from that blow, as he has returned to the fray a few times in recent years.

Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg

I was born a short distance from the reef in Far North Queensland so I have heard about it off and on for most of my life.  And for most of my 72 years, I have heard  of imminent doom facing it.  But the doom has not happened. All that has happened is that the reef has gone through periods of death and rebirth that differ from human cycles of death and rebirth mainly in that the coral deaths have never affected the whole reef.  And so the reef is still thriving.  It is still a major tourist attraction.

Hoagy's reply is below. As you can see it actually does nothing to refute the many research findings about coral survival in all sorts of settings. He just skates around them. Hoagy is losing it.

But maybe he lost it long ago. As I have often pointed out, corals are at their most prolific in the Torres Strait area, Queensland's warmest waters.  So how is warming harmful to them?  Hoagy has never answered that as far as I can see.  The most that warming would do would be a slight alteration to the distribution of species -- and I am sure Hoagy knows that

If you read The Australian or Britain’s The Times this week, you might have concluded that concerns about ocean warming and acidification are all a big beat-up.

Based on a study of the expert literature, the newspapers ran with a line that the marine science expert community has a penchant for “doom and gloom stories which has skewed academic reporting” because we only report the bad bits and rarely the good.

Given that the majority of scientists in this area (including the hundreds working in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process) do not feel this is the case, what is going on?

Newsflash: the dog isn’t barking

Reporting that a dog isn’t barking can sometimes be as important as reporting when it is. However, if we were to follow the newspapers' rationale, the scientific community should be pumping out endless scientific papers that report that nothing has happened. This would lead to numerous and repetitive studies showing that there is no significant effect (if that were indeed the case).

Print space in science journals is in short and coveted supply. To publish in a respected journal, you need to have something new, significant and well supported to say. In the case of the impacts of ocean acidification, it would indeed be newsworthy if a study reported that a set of organisms was unaffected by ocean acidification (to use our analogy, a newsworthy non-barking dog).

Indeed, some studies have shown precisely that, in the case of some invertebrate and fish species. These studies have received considerable attention given their departure from a literature that is finding a vast number of species that are affected.

This is not surprising. But after several studies have convincingly documented how one group of organisms responds, the novelty, significance and appeal of publishing further papers about those organisms quickly falls away. That doesn’t mean that the observations of no effect have been discarded or demoted in importance. The conclusion of “no effect” will remain until credible studies demonstrating the opposite come along. That is, until a study finds a dog that is barking.

Of course, once we have established that dogs bark, there are likely to be many papers to produce about the significant nuances of dogs and their barking such as the effect of size on barking, how important evening light might be for stimulating juvenile dogs to bark and so on. Again, this the way science produces detailed insight into significant issues like ocean warming and acidification.

Paper weight versus significance?

The importance of an idea is not a simple function of the number of papers. We don’t rate an idea or conclusion solely on the weight of the pages on one side versus another. This is where the newspapers and the original study wrongly assumed that the smaller proportion of “no effect” papers on the subject of ocean acidification was an indication of “skewed academic reporting”.

In reality, the massive and growing proportion of studies showing that ocean warming and acidification have real effects on ocean life shows that there is much to learn and be concerned about when it comes to these issues.

If the headlines from The Australian and The Times were correct, then conclusions about risks associated with ocean warming and acidification could be refuted at every turn. Our projections of the future of coral reefs, based on our allegedly distorted scientific literature, could be safely ignored.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Over the past year or so, many marine scientists like myself have been watching a very large blob of ocean water, up to 2℃ warmer than normal, across the equatorial Pacific and Atlantic oceans. We have been predicting substantial mass coral bleaching across the planet as 2016 unfolds.

At first, you might question our hypothesis and projections – these changes seem to be small changes in sea temperature. Yet we know these small variations can have huge implications. An increase of as little as 1-2℃ on top of regular summer temperatures can mean the difference between life and death for coral reefs.

However, the past, plus a rich and valuable scientific literature, has taught us that these changes are serious. The Great Barrier Reef, for instance, has lost up to 10% of its corals to these warming events over the past three decades. Over the past 25 years, relatively short periods of anomalously high sea temperatures have killed up to 95% of corals on some reefs.

The evidence suggests that we are likely to lose most corals worldwide in as little as 30 to 40 years if we continue to warm the climate at current rates.

Science works

The ultimate test is whether the elevated sea surface temperatures (the “warm blob”) translates into impacts on the ground. True to expert predictions, Hawaii and many other parts of the Pacific, including Australia, have begun bleaching on cue – hardly evidence of biased and unreliable science.

And as the year rolls out, we should see mass coral bleaching and mortality across the western Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and, later, the Northern Hemisphere as the year progresses and the third global bleaching event rolls out around the planet. We should also see the significant loss of corals from many parts of the world.

There is no doubt that this type of information sounds alarming. It is not, however, a consequence of biased or skewed science. Rather, it is a function of the careful build-up of significant ideas to which we would be well advised to pay attention.


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