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Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

In the glistening waters of Indonesia, shallow corals – the rain forests of the sea – teem with life.  Or at least they did once. Towards the end of 2015 the corals started to die, leaving a bleak landscape behind. An international team of researchers investigated the causes of the die-off. Their findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal, Biogeosciences, are rather surprising.

Globally, corals face tough times. Increasing ocean-water temperatures (driven by a warming climate) are disrupting the symbiotic relationship between corals and the algae that live on (and in) them.

The algae, known as zooxanthellae, provide a food source for corals and give them their colour. Changing water temperatures and/or levels, the presence of contaminants or overexposure to sunlight, put corals under stress, forcing the algae to leave. If that happens, the corals turn white – they become bleached – and are highly susceptible to disease and death.

Triggered by the 2015-2016 El Niño, water temperatures in many coral reef regions across the globe have risen, causing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event in recorded history. Now into its third year, the mass bleaching event is anticipated to cause major coral die-off in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the second consecutive year.

The team of researchers studying the Indonesian corals found that, unlike most corals globally, it’s not rising water temperatures which caused the recent die-off, but rather decreasing sea level.

While conducting a census of coral biodiversity in the Bunaken National Park, located in the northwest tip of Sulawesi (Indonesia), in late February 2016, the researchers noticed widespread occurrences of dead massive corals. Similar surveys, carried out in the springs of 2014 and 2015 revealed the corals to be alive and thriving.

In 2016, all the dying corals were found to have a sharp horizontal limit above which dead tissue was present and below which the coral was, seemingly, healthy. Up to 30% of the reef was affected by some degree of die-off.

Bunaken reef flats. (a)Close-up of one Heliopora coerula colony with clear tissue mortality on the upper part of the colonies; (b)same for a Porites lutea colony; (c) reef flat Porites colonies observed at low spring tide in May 2014. Even partially above water a few hours per month in similar conditions, the entire colonies were alive. (d) A living Heliopora coerula (blue coral) community in 2015 in a keep-up position relative to mean low sea level, with almost all the space occupied by corals. In that case, a 15 cm sea level fall will impact most of the reef flat. (e–h) Before–after comparison of coral status for colonies visible in (c). In (e), healthy Poritea lutea (yellow and pink massive corals) reef flat colonies in May 2014, observed at low spring tide. The upper part of colonies is above water, yet healthy; (f) same colonies in February 2016. The white lines visualize tissue mortality limit. Large Porites colonies (P1, P2) at low tide levels in 2014 are affected, while lower colonies (P3) are not. (g) P1 colony in 2014. (h) Viewed from another angle, the P1 colony in February 2016. (i) Reef flat community with scattered Heliopora colonies in February 2016, with tissue mortality and algal turf overgrowth. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

The confinement of the dead tissue to the tops and flanks of the corals, lead the scientists to think that the deaths must be linked to variations in sea level rather than temperature, which would affect the organisms ubiquitously. To confirm the theory the researchers had to establish that there had indeed been fluctuations in sea level across the region between the springs of 2015 and 2016.

To do so they consulted data from regional tide-gauges. Though not located exactly on Bunaken, they provided a good first-order measure of sea levels over the period of time in question. To bolster their results, the team also used sea level height data acquired by satellites, known as altimetry data, which had sampling points just off Bunaken Island. When compared, the sea level data acquired by the tidal gauges and satellites correlated well.

Sea-level data from the Bitung (east North Sulawesi) tide-gauge, referenced against Bako GPS station. On top, sea level anomalies measured by the Bitung tide-gauge station (low-quality data), and overlaid on altimetry ADT anomaly data for the 1993– 2016 period. Note the gaps in the tide-gauge time series. Middle: Bitung tide-gauge sea level variations (high-quality data, shown here from 1986 till early 2015) with daily mean and daily lowest values. Bottom, a close-up for the 2008–2015 period. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

The data showed that prior to the 2015-2016 El Niño, fluctuations in sea levels could be attributed to the normal ebb and flow of the tides. Crucially, between August and September 2015, they also showed a sharp decrease in sea level: in the region of 15cm (compared to the 1993-2016 mean). Though short-lived (probably a few weeks only), the period was long enough that the corals sustain tissue damage due to exposure to excessive UV light and air.

NOAA provides real-time Sea Surface Temperatures which identify areas at risk for coral bleaching. The Bunaken region was only put on alert in June 2016, long after the coral die-off started, therefore supporting the crucial role sea level fall played in coral mortality in Indonesia.

The link between falling sea level and El Niño events is not limited to Indonesia and the 2015-2016 event. When the researchers studied Absolute Dynamic Topography (ADT) data, which provides a measure of how sea level has change from 1992 to 2016, they found sea level falls matched with El Niño years.

The results of the study highlight that while all eyes are focused on the consequences of rising ocean temperatures and levels triggered by El Niño events, falling sea levels (also triggered by El Niño) could be having a, largely unquantified, harmful effect on corals globally.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources

Ampou, E. E., Johan, O., Menkes, C. E., Niño, F., Birol, F., Ouillon, S., and Andréfouët, S.: Coral mortality induced by the 2015–2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: the effect of rapid sea level fall, Biogeosciences, 14, 817-826, doi:10.5194/bg-14-817-2017, 2017

Varotsos, C. A., Tzanis, C. G., and Sarlis, N. V.: On the progress of the 2015–2016 El Niño event, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 2007-2011, doi:10.5194/acp-16-2007-2016, 2016.

What are El Niño and La Niña? – a video explainer by NOAA

Coral Reef Watch Satellite Monitoring by NOAA

Global sea level time series – global estimates of sea level rise based on measurements from satellite radar altimeters (NOAA/NESDIS/STAR, Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry)

El Niño prolongs longest global coral bleaching event – a NOAA News item

NOAA declares third ever global coral bleaching event – a NOAA active weather alert (Oct. 2015)

The 3rd Global Coral Bleaching Event – 2014/2017 – free resources for media and educators

What is coral bleaching? – an infographic by NOAA
The ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) Blog by Climate.gov (a NOAA resource)

Geosciences Column: Africa’s vulnerability to climate change

Climate change is set to hit the nations of the Global South the hardest.

Ravaged by armed conflicts, a deep struggle with poverty, poor governance and horizontal inequality, some parts of Africa and other Global South regions are arguably the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Largely reliant on natural resources for sustenance, current and future changes in temperatures, precipitation and the intensity of some natural hazards threaten the food security, public health and agricultural output of low-income nations.

Climate change increases heat waves across Africa

Among other impacts, climate change boosts the likelihood of periods of prolonged and/or abnormally hot weather (heat waves). A new study, by researchers in Italy, reveals that in the future all African capital cities are expected to face more exceptionally hot days than the rest of the world.

The new research, published in the EGU open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, has found that extreme heat waves affected only about 37% of the African continent between 1981 to 2005 while in the last decade, the land area affected grew to about 60%. The frequency of heat waves also increased, from an average of 12.3 per year from 1981 to 2005 to 24.5 per year from 2006 to 2015.

By merging information about the duration and the intensity of the recorded heat waves, the authors of the study were able to quantify the heat waves using a single numerical index which they called the Heat Wave Magnitude daily (HWMId). The new measure allowed the team to compare heatwaves from different locations and times.

Geographically plotting the HWMId values for daily maximum temperatures over five-year periods from 1981 to 2015, clearly showed there has been an increase, not only in the number of heat waves and their distribution across the continent, but also an escalation in their intensity (see the figure below). The trend is particularly noticeable since 1996 and peaks between 2011 and 2015.

Heat Wave Magnitude Index daily of maximum temperature (HWMIdtx) for 5-year periods of Global Surface Summary of the Day (GSOD) gauge network records from 1981 to 2015. The bottom-right panes show the spatial distribution of the GSOD station employed in this study. From G. Ceccherini et al. 2016 (click to enlarge).

The figure also highlights that densely populated areas, particularly Northern and Southern Africa, as well as Madagascar, are most at risk.

The rise in occurrences of extreme temperature events will put pressure on already stretched local infrastructure. With the elderly and children most at risk from heat waves, the health care needs of the local population will increase, as will the demand for electricity for cooling. Therefore, further studies of this nature are required, to quantify the implications of African heat waves on health, crops and local economies and assist government officials in making informed decisions about climate change adaptation policies.

Lessons learned from climate adaptation strategies

In the face of weather extremes across Africa including heat waves, droughts and floods, it is just as important to carefully assess the suitability of climate change adaptation policies, argues another recently published study in the EGU open access journal Earth System Dynamics.

Take Malawi, for instance, a severely poor nation: over 74% of the population live on less than a dollar ($) a day and 90% depend on rain-fed subsistence farming to survive. According to Malawi government figures, one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from agriculture, forestry and fishing.  As a result, the country – and its population – is vulnerable to weather extremes, such as variability in the rainy season, prolonged dry spells and rise in the number of abnormally hot days.

A 2006 Action Aid report states that “increased droughts and floods may be exacerbating poverty levels, leaving many rural farmers trapped in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability. The situation in Malawi illustrates the drastic increases in hunger and food insecurity being caused by global warming worldwide.”

The Lake Chilwa Basin Climate Adaptation Programme (LCBCCAP) aims to enhance the resilience of rural communities surrounding Lake Chilwa to the impacts of droughts, floods and temperature extremes. The lake is a closed drainage lake (meaning it relies on rainfall to be replenished) in the south eastern corner of Malawi.

Perceptions of how climate change affects residents of the Lake Chilwa Basin. From H. Jørstad and C. Webersik, 2016 (click to enlarge).

The authors of the Earth System Dynamics study interviewed a group of 18 women (part of the LCBCCAP programme), back in early 2012, to understand how they perceived they were affected by climate change and whether the adaptation tools provided by the programme would meet their long-term needs.

The women agreed unanimously: climate in the Lake Chilwa Basin was changing. They reported that rainy seasons had become shorter and more unreliable, leading to droughts and dry spells. One of the women mentioned raising temperatures and fewer trees, due to overexploitation.

All those interviewed were part of the women fish-processing group, an initiative which sought to provide an alternative income for the women as traditional agricultural activities became unreliable due to erratic rainfall and prolonged dry seasons.

While the women’s new occupation did provide economic relief, the study authors highlight that the group’s new source of income was just as dependant on natural resources as agriculture.

Throughout the interviews, the women of the fish-processing group expressed concerns that the they thought Lake Chilwa might dry up completely by 2013.

“Yes, the lake will dry up and I will not have a business,” says Tadala, one of the women interviewed in the study. While another local woman said “Yes, lower water levels in the lake is threatening my business.”

Lake Chilwa has a long history of drying up: in the last century it has dried up nine times.  If the lake dried up completely, the women of the fish-processing group would be out of business for 2 to 4 years. Even small drops in the water level affect the abundance of fish stocks.

Lake Chilwa has a history of drying up. These Landsat images show the net reduction of lake area between October 1990 and November 2013. show changes to the extensive wetlands (bright green) that surround Lake Chilwa. These wetlands are internationally recognized as an important seasonal hosting location for migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere. Credit: USGS

The interviews were carried out in early 2012. The previous two years had seen very limited rainfall. Not enough to sustain the lake, but the situation, at the time of the interviews wasn’t critical. However, throughout the summer of 2012 the lake water levels started falling rapidly prompting the relocation of large groups of lakeshore residents. Those dependant on fishing to support their families were most affected.

The women fish-processing group is a good demonstration of how local communities can adopt low-cost measures to adjust to climate change. At the same time, it highlights the need to assess climate adaptation strategies to take into consideration whether they too are dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources. The new research argues that diversifying people’s livelihoods might provide better long-term coping mechanisms.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources

Ceccherini, G., Russo, S., Ameztoy, I., Marchese, A. F., and Carmona-Moreno, C.: Heat waves in Africa 1981–2015, observations and reanalysis, Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 115-125, doi:10.5194/nhess-17-115-2017, 2017

Jørstad, H. and Webersik, C.: Vulnerability to climate change and adaptation strategies of local communities in Malawi: experiences of women fish-processing groups in the Lake Chilwa Basin, Earth Syst. Dynam., 7, 977-989, doi:10.5194/esd-7-977-2016, 2016.

ActionAid: Climate change and smallholder farmers in Malawi: Understanding poor people’s experience in climate change adaptation, ActionAid International, 2006.

NASA: The consequences of climate change

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Understanding the Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Heat wave, a major summer killer

January GeoRoundup: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

January Georoundup: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

The start of the new year sees the launch of a new series here on GeoLog. Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major stories

One of the biggest stories of this month was the anticipated release of the average global surface temperatures for 2016. It probably wasn’t a great surprise to discover that newly released National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and the UK’s MetOffice data showed 2016 was the hottest year on record. On average, temperatures last year were 0.99℃ higher than the mid-century mean. It marks the third year in a row that Earth has registered record-breaking temperatures and highlights a trend, as climate blogger, Dana Nuccitelli, explains in an article for The Guardian:

“We’re now breaking global temperature records once every three years”

This video, showing NASA global surface temperature record since 1880, illustrates the point clearly. There were no record breaking years between 1945 and 1976, but since 1980 there have been 12.

 

This month also saw the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. A fierce climate-change denier, Donald Trump’s rise to power has many worried about the future of climate change policy at the White House. To shine a light on the realities of climate change in the face of a largely climate sceptic administration and despite the ever rising global temperatures, The Guardian dedicate 24 hours to reporting on how climate changes is affecting regions across the globe. Among the comprehensive coverage this collection of climate facts stands out.

And it turns out the fears about the newly elected administration may not have been unfounded. Earlier this week the US Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies issued a ban preventing its scientists from communicating with the press and public about their research findings; even on social media. The order has since been rescinded, but US- based scientists remain concerned. In response, the AGU has written a letter to federal agencies in the US defending the protection of scientific integrity and open communications.

Closer to home, central Italy was struck by a sequence of four earthquakes on 18th of January, with the largest registering a magnitude of 5.7. The epicentres were located close to the town of Amatrice – in a region already shaken by several strong, and sometimes devastating, earthquakes in 2016. Later that day, and following a period of very heavy snowfall, a deadly avalanche in the Apennines buried a hotel in the Grand Sasso resort area, which had also been affected by the earthquakes. Although some news reports were quick to suggest the avalanche had been triggered by the earthquakes, researchers will need more data and a more detailed analysis to make this connection.

What you might have missed

While we are on the topic of climate change, a newly published report by the  European Environmental Agency is not to be missed.

“Climate change poses increasingly severe risks for ecosystems, human health and the economy in Europe.”

The document assesses the latest trends and projections on climate change and its impacts across Europe. While the effects of increasing temperatures will be felt across the continent, Southern and south-eastern Europe is projected to be a climate change hotspot with the forecasts showing the region will bear the brunt of the impacts.

A powerful 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Papua New Guinea on 22nd January. While the USGS estimated there was a low risk to property, tsunami warnings were issued across the South Pacific. In the wake of the tremor, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) tweeted this neat ground motion visualisation of the earthquake waves.

A study published in Nature and summarised in Eos, highlights that while overt discrimination of women in the geosciences has not been as prevalent in recent years, many female scientists are still subject to subtle and unconscious bias leading to barriers to success in the geosciences.

Five links we liked

  • NOAA’s new GOES-R satellite for weather monitoring returned its first stunning photos of planet Earth – here are six reasons why the data it will acquire matter.
  • Snow fell in the Sahara for the first time in 37 years! This photogallery shows the usually red sand dunes of the desert covered in a sprinkling of white snow.
  • Scientist at The University of Cambridge have published the first global map of flow within the Earth’s mantle, showing that the surface moves up & down “like a yo-yo”.

The EGU story

At the EGU, the highlight of the month is the number of abstracts we received from researchers wishing to present and discuss their science at the EGU 2017 General Assembly. With over 17,500 abstracts, and an improved set-up to accommodate the high number of expected participants, the conference promises to be the largest and most exciting to date. We look forward to welcoming everyone in Vienna on 23–28 April!

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

GeoPolicy: What will a Trump presidency mean for climate change?

GeoPolicy: What will a Trump presidency mean for climate change?

The US Presidential election this month saw Republican Donald Trump, a fierce climate sceptic, be elected into office. In wake of the election results, this month’s GeoPolicy post will take a look at Trump’s proposed actions on climate change, how likely these are to happen, and what the climate and clean technology communities could do to limit the damage.

 

This tweet, written four years ago, has come to surmise Donald Trump’s views on climate change.

Beyond scepticism, reaching into the realms of conspiracy, it provides a dark outlook on what a Trump presidency might mean for global activities preventing climate change.

In his energy policy speech during his presidential campaign, Trump stated that he wants to re-ignite the US coal industry and expand oil and gas resources to strive for energy independence. Additionally, he has expressed a wish to “cancel” the Paris Agreement and retract Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which requires companies to lower their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions1.

As President-elect, one of Trump’s first actions has been to appoint the renowned climate sceptic, Myron Ebell, to lead his US Environmental Protection Agency transitional team. Ebell has written much about climate change “alarmism” (as he describes it), has been quoted calling the Clean Power Plan “illegal” and the Paris Agreement “unconstitutional”2. Additionally, Trump favours Harold Hamm, Chief Executive of the oil company Continental Resources, to be his energy secretary3.

Perhaps in no surprise, the day after the election results, stock markets saw share prices rocket for coal companies and plummet for renewable energy firms4.

But will these plans be realised?

A recent news article from Science has tried to assess the possibility of Trump implementing his plans. Some are easier said than done5. The Paris Agreement was ratified by President Obama and entered into force on 04 November 2016. Legally, this means that Trump cannot immediately pull out of the Agreement, it would take several years. He could, however, remove the US from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which would take effect in one year. The article states that this is the most likely action Trump will choose to take. The US currently makes up 17.89 % of global GHG emissions6. It is the second largest contributing nation. Failing to reduce these emissions, or even increasing them, would be a substantial blow to the Paris Agreement.

 Entry Into Force of the Paris Agreement. Credit: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (https://www.pik-potsdam.de/)

Entry Into Force of the Paris Agreement. Credit: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (https://www.pik-potsdam.de/)

The Clean Power Plan, being domestic legislation rather than international, could be more difficult to revoke, as it has already undergone a lengthy review process. The article interviews Jody Freeman, director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard Law School. Courts would have to approve the de-regulation of the Clean Power Plan and this would require ‘sound scientific or technical reasoning’, Freeman says5.

 

Beyond Paris

During the same week as the elections, COP22 was being held in Marrakesh. This meeting discussed the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The US Presidential announcement happened on the second day of the conference. Scientists’ responses were mixed. But a clear message resounded: with or without the US, the Paris Agreement will go ahead7.

Dr Philip B Duffy, former senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, states in the video below, that there is an international momentum to tackling climate change that can’t be stopped. If the US government steps back then other countries must step up and do more.

One example of going above and beyond, is Germany, who has recently announced an agreement to cut carbon emissions by 95 % by 20508.

 

Another side to the argument?

It is clear that Trump does not care about climate change. What he has said, multiple times throughout his presidential campaign, is that he is a business man. Trump cares about making money.

Perhaps by putting the subject of climate change to the sidelines and focusing more on the economic arguments for transforming to a low-carbon technology it is possible to continue addressing this issue. Several economic arguments for tackling climate change exist9:

  • The cost of renewable energy sources have substantially decreased over recent years and the share of energy being produced by these methods is increasing10;
  • Natural disasters, like flooding and hurricanes, cost millions in damages and could become more frequent and severe due to climate change11. The rising damage and insurance costs are becoming more competitive with the investments needed to mitigate/adapt to climate change;
  • In the US, subsidies for traditional energy resources are four-times as large as they are for renewables12.

Several reasons now exist for switching to low-carbon energy supplies, which, in the process, reduce GHG emissions and mitigate against climate change. Additionally, a spokesperson from the Trump campaign did not disregard the possibility of developing renewable energy sources. They were quoted to say:

Energy independence means exploring and developing every possible energy source including wind, solar, nuclear and bio-fuels.  A thriving market system will allow consumers to determine the best sources of energy for future consumption.13

Many of Trump’s environmental policies focus on de-regulation: leaving it up to the individual States to choose whether they want to partake in mitigation policies. One small positive to this is that not all of the US shares Trump’s views, and although national policies may be changed, many States will continue to implement regional policies that promote clean technology and reduce GHG emissions5. But this will not be enough. If the US fails then the rest of the world must step up to limit rising global temperatures.

 

Further Reading:

The Trump Effect: Smaller than you think

Climate change a Chinese hoax? Beijing gives Donald Trump a lesson in history 

Sources:

[1] – How President Trump Will Affect Clean Energy and the Climate Change Fight

[2] – Trump Picks Top Climate Skeptic to Lead EPA Transition

[3] – Oil mogul Hamm tops Trump list for U.S. energy secretary: sources

[4] – 12 things that already happened within hours of Donald Trump being elected president

[5] – What Trump can—and can’t—do all by himself on climate

[6] – Paris Reality Check – pledged climate futures

[7] – Climate change: Nations will push ahead with plans despite Trump

[8] – German coalition agrees to cut carbon emissions up to 95% by 2050

[9] – Is there an economic case for tackling climate change?

[10] – Half of UK electricity comes from low-carbon sources for first time ever, claims new report

[11] – Tropical cyclones and climate change (Nature Geoscience)

[12] – Felipe Calderón: Economic Arguments Needed to Fight Climate Change

[13] – How President-Elect Trump Views Science

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