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Today in the Sixth Extinction

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Keppelbleaching

If you like diving, do it now because the coral reefs are going, going, gone.

The damage off Kiritimati is part of a mass bleaching of coral reefs around the world, only the third on record and possibly the worst ever. Scientists believe that heat stress from multiple weather events including the latest, severe El Niño, compounded by climate change, has threatened more than a third of Earth’s coral reefs. Many may not recover.

Coral reefs are the crucial incubators of the ocean’s ecosystem, providing food and shelter to a quarter of all marine species, and they support fish stocks that feed more than one billion people. They are made up of millions of tiny animals, called polyps, that form symbiotic relationships with algae, which in turn capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars that feed the polyps.

An estimated 30 million small-scale fishermen and women depend on reefs for their livelihoods, more than one million in the Philippines alone. In Indonesia, fish supported by the reefs provide the primary source of protein.

“This is a huge, looming planetary crisis, and we are sticking our heads in the sand about it,” said Justin Marshall, the director of CoralWatch at Australia’s University of Queensland.

Bleaching occurs when high heat and bright sunshine cause the metabolism of the algae — which give coral reefs their brilliant colors and energy — to speed out of control, and they start creating toxins. The polyps recoil. If temperatures drop, the corals can recover, but denuded ones remain vulnerable to disease. When heat stress continues, they starve to death.

Damaged or dying reefs have been found from Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar, to East Flores, Indonesia, and from Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific to the Florida Keys in the Atlantic.

The largest bleaching, at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was confirmed last month. In a survey of 520 individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef’s northern section, scientists from Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force found only four with no signs of bleaching. Some 620 miles of reef, much of it previously in pristine condition, had suffered significant bleaching.

In follow-up surveys, scientists diving on the reef said half the coral they had seen had died. Terry Hughes, the director of the Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, who took part in the survey, warned that even more would succumb if the water did not cool soon.

Meanwhile, it is slightly chilly in the North American east, meaning that climate change is a hoax. Brilliant climate scientist and Oklahoma senator James Inhofe will tell you so.

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  • Don’t forget, Al Gore is fat!

    I eagerly await the next TED talk on how the wonders of technology are going to save us.

  • Thirtyish

    This is the sort of thing that leads me to hope without any shame that someday, when humans are extinct, I hope the Earth can make a comeback of some sorts.

    • Humans won’t go extinct. Quite a lot of us will die, but not all.

      • joel hanes

        To a first-order approximation, all species go extinct.
        Humans will not be the exception.

        • Ok, let me preface that. Global warming is unlikely to cause the extinction of the entire human race, although it may set in motion events that may substantially reduce its number. The human race will continue to evolve, and will of course eventually take its place in the long history of evolution.

          Is that better for you?

          • Brett

            Not even sure on that one. We often use the “slow-cooking the frog” analogy on climate change, but it’s usually the sudden, surprising stuff that kills people en masse – the sudden plague spreading all over, the violent storm, the unexpected earthquake, etc.

            Climate change seems more like to force some major changes on humanity in most of the world, but one that won’t kill more than a small fraction of us except insofar that it raises the average death rate a bit. That doesn’t mean it will be pleasant by any means.

            • There are cases where global warming will directly cause more deaths. But global warming will cause the most damage as a secondary stressor. There will be millions of climate refugees. These climate refugees will have to go somewhere.

              The refugee crisis hitting Europe right now is merely the beginning.

    • Murc

      … what the hell, dude?

      The natural world exists for the benefit of humans.

      I’m concerned about coral reef dieoff not because of some aesthetic attachment to them (although they are wonderful) but because fucking up the ecosystem we live in is the sort of thing that isn’t easily taken back if it turns out we kicked out the ecological equivalent of a load-bearing wall.

      The Earth can’t really make “a comeback.” The Earth is just a spinning hunk of rock smeared with organic goo and surrounded by a thin layer of chemicals. At one point it was wreathed in toxic fog and liquid water couldn’t exist on the surface, and in a relatively short period of time it will return to that state, when the sun exits the main sequence, gets swol, and cooks off the oceans.

      • The Earth is just a spinning hunk of rock smeared with organic goo and surrounded by a thin layer of chemicals.

        You should read Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, in case you haven’t already. You would enjoy it.

      • Rob in CT

        Basically this. The issue here is us fouling our nest.

      • The natural world exists for the benefit of humans.

        No it does not. That’s a ridiculous thing to say.

        Mind you, it’s equally ridiculous to say that humans exist to act as custodians of the natural world. Life on this planet is a happy (?) accident with no purpose or intent. Wishing for the extinction of the human race is a silly, childish thing to do, not least because it implicitly suggests that there’s some greater authority or audience keeping score that actually cares who lives or dies on this rock. But it’s equally silly and childish to suggest that the natural world exists for any purpose, much less to serve humans.

        • Murc

          Fair point, I suppose. Something like “the natural world doesn’t exist for any purpose, and as the thinking beings who populate this planet it’s entirely okay for us to exploit it for our own benefit” would probably have been more accurate.

          • joel hanes

            We’d be wiser and happier if we could learn to observe this rule while we exploit the only known living planet:

            “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” — Aldo Leopold

            • Murc

              A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

              By this logic agriculture is wrong.

              • Ahuitzotl

                I’d say that’s a defensible position, though I dont personally care for it overmuch.

          • njorl

            “it’s entirely okay for us to exploit it for our own benefit”

            It depends how parochial you get with that “us”. We shouldn’t be exploiting the world in a way which precludes our descendants from doing the same thing.

          • as the thinking beings who populate this planet it’s entirely okay for us to exploit it for our own benefit

            I guess my problem with this is that I don’t see why being able to think makes it OK for us to exploit the planet to the extent that we cause the extinction of all the other beings that share it. Even leaving aside the fact that science is increasingly showing that many animals are much more complex and intelligent than we had previously suspected, possessing such traits as compassion, humor, and a sense of right and wrong, there’s no justification for treating ourselves as the rulers of this planet. We are one species among many, and behaving as if we have a moral right to kill all the others is surely indefensible.

            • Murc

              I guess my problem with this is that I don’t see why being able to think makes it OK for us to exploit the planet to the extent that we cause the extinction of all the other beings that share it.

              Thinking things possess moral agency over unthinking things. I don’t feel particular angst over the cotton plants that died to make my clothes.

              That said, of course it isn’t okay to cause the extinction of all other things on the planet. Among other things, we’d go extinct.

              • Dennis Orphen

                I’ve got angst in my pants.

            • Gareth

              science is increasingly showing that many animals are much more complex and intelligent than we had previously suspected, possessing such traits as compassion, humor, and a sense of right and wrong,

              Doesn’t that mean we should be manipulating the biosphere in favour of those particular animals, even if it means exterminating other species?

              • Of course it doesn’t (at least, not a priori): the complexity and intelligence are (and can only be) manifested in an environment [1], and making huge changes in that environment (e.g., exterminations) are as likely as not (whoops! my priors are showing!!) to impair or even destroy that complexity and intelligence.

                [1] To throw around some jargon (I think appropriately; but I don’t swear I’m not misusing it), both the “complexity” and the “intelligence” of a species (or an organism) are emergent features of an ecological web, and depend strongly on the environmental affordances (including intra-specific affordances) of that web.[2]

                [2] For instance, if banal trolls were extinguished, and thereby responses to trolls were no longer afforded in the blogosphere, think how impoverished some blogs would become!!!

                • Dammit, I meant “inter-specific”. Need more coffee.

        • Life on this planet is a happy (?) accident with no purpose or intent.

          I would say that the meaning of life, if it has any meaning at all, is to provide agency to the universe. Without life, the universe really is just so much gas and rock.

          • I see what you’re saying, but to me that seems like a pipe dream. The universe is vast and old beyond our imagining of it, and human life has existed in a tiny blip of space and time within it. Even if we do everything right, and the human race persists for millennia and expands well past this planet and solar system, we’ll only see a tiny fraction of it. Entire alien civilizations could, and may already have, risen and fallen without our ever knowing about them or them knowing about us. It’s impossible for me to imagine how intelligent life in the universe could ever reach the level of being able to grant it agency. On the average, it seems to me, the universe is gas and rock whether or not we’re in it.

            • Ah, but you see, life is agency. Consider this: how do we know if life exists? We know life exists when we come across activity that can only be explained by life, moving along in ways that only have meaning to that life: the level of oxygen in our atmosphere (the uniqueness of the Earth’s biosphere, for that matter), the objects we set in motion both here and in space for purposes that only matter to us, the communication inbedded in the radio signals we transmit, etc. It may only exist for a blink of time on the galactic scale, but it exists nevertheless.

    • Brett

      So it can then all perish 800 million to 1 billion years from now, when the Sun’s luminosity turns the planet into a Venus analogue, with no meaning at all to it ever having existed?

      Fuck that. Humanity is the best bet for some version of Earth’s biosphere to survive the planet’s loss of habitability down the line. Or hell, slow down said loss of habitability – when you’re talking hundreds of millions of years, you can do crazy stuff like gradually moving the planet outwards “gravity tractor” style.

  • kerFuFFler

    As I understand things, acidification is another significant problem for oceanic ecosystems. Additional CO2 in the water makes it more acidic just the way it makes soft drinks acidic. Corals, mollusks and any other organisms that form calcium rich shells or casings are threatened by this.

    Increased acidity can also speed up the formation of large sinkholes in places like Florida where the land often sits on calcareous deposits which dissolve as the sea water leaches further inland because of sea level rise.

    Florida is screwed.

    • Florida is screwed.

      Yup, and so is everyone else when the Floridians start moving north. And the Texans, the Georgians, Louisianians, Mississippians, and so on.

      • Murc

        Frankly, I expect something awful to happen in Louisiana before anywhere else on that list. The state has so many areas that are precarious not in the sense of “looming ecological disaster” but in the sense of “there’s a very real chance one day I wake up and find out Plaquemines Parish or Morgan City have simply ceased to exist sometime in the past twelve hours.”

        • Yeah, there’s some crazy sinkhole action going on in Louisiana.

        • Ahuitzotl

          Something awful is always happening in Louisiana. Occasionally it involves the physical landscape.

      • Michael Cain

        There have been calls in Colorado to build a wall to keep the Texans out for all of the almost-30 years I’ve lived here.

    • giovanni da procida

      Pedantically, anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are acidifying the ocean, but the ocean as a whole is not yet (nor is it likely to become) acidic (pH < 7). That does not mean that decreasing pH is not very bad for a number of important organisms. Pteropods and corals are both calcifying organisms that have shown real sensitivity to elevated concentrations of CO2. For pteropods, their shells will be pitted and holed. For corals, it seems that higher temps plus elevated CO2 can make bleaching events worse.

      There is some evidence that some types of calcifying phytoplankton (specifically coccolithophores) do not seem to suffer under elevated CO2. Recent papers have suggested that Emiliana Huxleyi concentrations in the Atlantic have increased, even as pH has decreased. That said, if the calcite compensation depth (the depth at which calcite dissolves in seawater) rises to the sunlit layer of the ocean where phytoplankton live (which will happen as CO2 continues to go up and pH goes down), the coccolithophores are likely truly f*cked.

    • Brett

      Florida was screwed anyways. That limestone means they can’t just wall off the rising sea with dikes, barriers, and pumps – the water gets in below and comes up through the street.

  • So you’re saying I should give up on being a dive instructor?

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