Sunday, September 3, 2017

Anthony Watts wants coral reefs to face extinction - again

Sou | 12:44 AM Go to the first of 10 comments. Add a comment
Photo: Toby Hudson
Coral reefs are critically important to the marine ecosystem. Despite this, there's another attempt to make corals extinct at Anthony Watts' blog wattsupwiththat.com (WUWT) (archived here). Anthony wrote an article saying how it was hilarious for scientists to want to study corals, because they've been made extinct a number of times before and came back hundreds of millennia later. Or something like that.

As Phil Clarke pointed out in a comment here, Anthony started his strange plea to stop studying corals by referring to an article on the website of the Global Reef Project. Anthony quoted the first sentence of the article, and decided to not post any more of it. Here is the first sentence, plus a bit more (my emphasis). The part that Anthony quoted is in italics. The part that contradicted his whole article is in bold:
Corals are 500 million years old, and date back to the late Cambrian period, during the Paleozoic era (Fig. 1). Evidence suggests that they started as simple, solitary organisms but, in response to changes in their environment, later evolved into the coral reefs we know today. It is also known that over the 500 million years, during which corals are known to have existed, they have experienced a number of extinction events. These extinction events were largely the result of dramatic changes in their environment, such as we are seeing today. 

The web article was recounting all the extinction events when corals and coral reefs disappeared. The last paragraph states:
The climate of the globe is currently undergoing a rapid PETM-like event (a warming period), driven by greenhouse gases as in the PETM. Evidence now suggests that coral reefs will pass a point of no-return around 2040, and go into terminal decline, eventually disappearing at the end of this century. If so, based on past evidence, it is likely that many millions of years will pass before they return. 
In other words, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Anthony Watts wants the corals today to go extinct, to see if they will come back again after "many millions of years" have passed. Well, maybe there is another conclusion. As Anthony's good friend Willis Eschenbach said of him, he could read a simple science article for a year and still not understand it (or words to that effect).

Huge areas of the Great Barrier Reef have suffered severe bleaching recently, with many corals dying. Severe bleaching can lead to death, but coral can also recover from bleaching. When scientists say that corals have died they mean just that. Dead. Not to recover.

WUWT ridiculousness about corals

Anthony's headline and article were arguing that scientific research on corals is ridiculous. His headline was:
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies asks ridiculous question: ‘Can corals survive climate change?’
Then he claimed "And the answer is, Yes. In fact, they’ve already survived millions of years of climate change." Wrong, Anthony!

What is ridiculous isn't research into coral reefs, it's Anthony's claim. The article he pointed to is one that is solely devoted to describing not one, not two but umpteen times that corals became extinct. According to the web article Anthony laughingly referenced, when he falsely claimed that corals have "already survived millions of years of climate change":
  • Ordovician–Silurian Extinction Event - corals disappeared 435 million years ago.
  • Devonian Period - corals reappeared 25 million years later, but disappeared again 350 million years ago.
  • Permian-Triassic Extinction Event - it took another 100 million years for corals to reappear, but became extinct again in this extinction event, 251 million years ago.
  • Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods - another 21 million years passed before they reemerged 230 million years ago, but "only" for 25 million years. They came and went between 190 and 75 million years ago.
  • Cretaceous-Tertiary Mass Extinction Event - 65 million years ago they disappeared again.
  • Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum Event - this was the most extreme warming event (before now), when global surface temperatures rose by about 6 C. Most corals died and disappeared.
  • Mid-Eocene Period - they came back 46 million years ago for around 6 million years, before disappearing again 40 million years ago.
Corals in the region of the Great Barrier Reef started forming around 20 million years ago, however the current reefs probably began growing on older structures about 20,000 years ago.

Anthony put up a chart by Global Warming Art (Robert Rhode), from Wikipedia. I've added annotations to his chart and animated them with all but the Mid-Eocene period.

The point is that Anthony Watts and his band of deniers care as little about the extinction of corals as they do about the extinction of anything else in the world, including humans.

Dim dumb deniers think scientific research is "hilarious"

After putting up his plain chart, which didn't show coral extinctions, Anthony wrote how he thinks that doing scientific research on corals is "hilarious":
What is really hilarious is that right next to the ‘ARC Centre for Excellence’ release, is this one in the Eurekalert feed:
The press release he linked to was about a paper in the current issue of Nature Climate Change: Rapid adaptive responses to climate change in corals. The paper was authored by a large international team led by Dr Gergely Torda of James Cook University in Queensland Australia. The paper was describing how corals could possibly "acclimatize to warming and acidifying oceans via developmental and/or transgenerational plasticity (TGP)", and setting out possible research priorities to investigate this. From the abstract:
Here, we discuss prospects for observing transgenerational plasticity in corals and the mechanisms that could enable adaptive plasticity in the coral holobiont, including the potential role of epigenetics and coral-associated microbes. Well-designed and strictly controlled experiments are needed to distin-guish transgenerational plasticity from other forms of plasticity, and to elucidate the underlying mechanisms and their relative importance compared with genetic adaptation.
Anthony's mockery is peculiar, not just because the paper was about how (some) corals may survive climate change. It was also odd because the mechanisms it discusses are the main theme of his protege denier, Jim Steele, in his appalling articles. (Jim Steele argues to let the coral reefs die because he reckons they aren't dying or they'll adapt.) You'd have thought Anthony would welcome the paper. Instead he mocks it. Deniers are nothing if not inconsistent.

The fate of tropical coral reefs is of particular concern

Early in the paper, the authors write about why coral reefs are important:
The fate of tropical coral reefs is of particular concern due to their high social, ecological and economic value, and their sensitivity to environmental change. Hermatypic scleractinians (reef-building corals), the ecosystem engineers of coral reefs, live close to their upper thermal limits, and elevated summer temperatures can cause mass coral bleaching and mortality. Some reef-building corals are also sensitive to the declining saturation state of carbonate ions that accompanies ocean acidification, and declining water quality associated with altered land use and precipitation regimes. Reef-building corals provide shelter, food and habitat, and therefore loss of live coral and associated structural complexity leads to declines in the diversity and abundance of other reef organisms. The future of coral reefs will therefore depend on the capacity of these foundation species to respond adaptively to rapid environmental change. 
The paper is long-ish but well worth reading as it gives a lot of information about possible mechanisms that may help or hinder adaptation by corals as their environment undergoes very rapid change. To whet your appetite, below is one diagram from the paper:

Potential pathways that may enable TGP [transgenerational plasticity] in corals include somatic, genetic and epigenetic factors of the coral gametes as well as their associated microbes transmitted vertically from one generation to the next. Source: Torda17

Scientific Consensus Statement

Just the other day an important document was released: 2017 Scientific
Consensus Statement - Land Use Impact on Great Barrier Reef Water Quality and Ecosystem Condition. The report focused on water quality, but mentioned weather events and climate impacts as well in the overarching scientific consensus:
Key Great Barrier Reef ecosystems continue to be in poor condition. This is largely due to the collective impact of land run-off associated with past and ongoing catchment development, coastal development activities, extreme weather events and climate change impacts such as the 2016 and 2017 coral bleaching events.

Current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets. To accelerate the change in on-ground management, improvements to governance, program design, delivery and evaluation systems are urgently needed. This will require greater incorporation of social and economic factors, better targeting and prioritisation, exploration of alternative management options and increased support and resources.

The second of eight main points also related to climate change:
The cumulative effects of multiple pressures substantially reduce the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef including the combined impacts of extreme weather events, climate change and historical developments. In the past four years, a fourth outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish occurred, originating from reefs impacted by river flows from the Wet Tropics region. In addition, unusually warm sea temperatures in the northern Great Barrier Reef resulted in widespread coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017. However, later low rainfall and run-off has shown the ability of seagrass ecosystems to recover from the acute impacts of run-off. Reducing land-based pollution will improve the resilience of the marine ecosystems to cope with a changing climate. 
In the same week as the above Scientific Consensus Statement was published, the Queensland and Australian governments released a draft water quality improvement plan for the Great Barrier Reef. According to an article at The Conversation, this plan is an improvement but falls short of what is needed to save the reef. The authors, Jon Brodie, Alana Grech and Laurence McCook (all experts from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University) wrote:
But although the draft plan provides improved targets and a framework for reducing land-based pollution, it still doesn’t reflect the severity of the situation. The 2017 Scientific Consensus Statement reports that “current initiatives will not meet the water quality targets” by 2025.

This is because the draft plan does not provide any major new funding, legislation or other initiatives to drive down land-based pollution any further. 

The Scientific Consensus Statement was mostly about water quality, however coral bleaching is becoming more and more common and is killing large areas of coral reefs. I've written before about the impact of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. I met up with a friend from Airlie Beach recently, who confirmed that large parts of the reef have died, particularly up north.

The Australian Government is working to make climate change worse

The Australian Government is currently doing whatever it takes to make climate change worse. It has not made any serious effort to reduce carbon emissions and, under the previous Prime Minister, put a stop to carbon pricing. It gets much worse. The government is wanting to open up the Galilee Basin to coal mining, and even considering giving Adani $1 billion to fund it. Such an act would seriously add to the woes of global warming and the Great Barrier Reef, or it would if Adani and other companies mined it all, which may not happen given how coal is going out of style. (Has anyone estimated how much the Galilee basin coal would add to global warming if it was all burnt?)

From the WUWT comments

There were a number of content-less smarty pants comments from the dimwits, as you'd expect.

Greg, who makes a similar comment every time he reads about one of the Australian Research Council's Centres of Excellence, said:
September 1, 2017 at 11:53 am
Anyone who has the arrogance and hubris to call themselves a “CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE ” pretty surely is not.
Were they a CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE before they even started ? Or did they operate for a few years before deciding that if they did not call themselves a CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE , no one would notice how EXCELLENT they were?
Those who are really excellent have the modesty to remain silent and let others judge them and EARN a reputation for excellence.
Then Greg took another potshot at the Australian Government and wrote:
September 1, 2017 at 11:58 am
Oddly this self proclaimed “excellence” seems to be the hallmark of left-wing climate groups engaging in activism dressed as science.

Renowned climate science denier and coral inexpert Tom Halla had a thought - why not migrate corals from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean, and elsewhere:
September 1, 2017 at 9:38 am
As there are corals in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, Corals have rather more heat tolerance than supposed. 
ristvan, (aka Rudd Istvan) who took up science disinformation as a retirement hobby, wrote how the fake expert and pseudo-scientist, Jim Steele, "exposed" the real scientists.
September 1, 2017 at 11:24 am
More JCU nonsense from the Center headed by Prof. Terry Hughes, who Jim Steele exposed as a deliberately misleading coral alarmist here a few days ago. The opposite of excellence.

Mark Vertelli can tell a fraud when he sees one. Frauds are all the people who understand physics, chemistry and biology.
September 1, 2017 at 12:11 pm
The fact they endorse AGW is proof they’re frauds. Their church can’t even calculate the temperature of the atmosphere properly, attaining a temperature in line with the International Standard Atmosphere.

If you aren't wearing your head vice when you read the comments, make sure you have one of those strong paper bags like those provided in the pocket of aeroplanes. Almost every single person at WUWT wants the world to burn and coral reefs to die.

References and further reading

Gergely Torda et al. “Rapid adaptive responses to climate change in corals.” Nature Climate Change 7, 627–636 (2017) doi:10.1038/nclimate3374 (shared access)

Jane Waterhouse, Britta Schaffelke, Rebecca Bartley, Rachel Eberhard, Jon Brodie, Megan Star, Peter Thorburn, John Rolfe, Mike Ronan, Bruce Taylor and Frederieke Kroon. "2017 Scientific Consensus Statement: Land use impacts on Great Barrier Reef water quality and ecosystem condition" Queensland Government, August 2017 (pdf here)

Draft Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022 for public consultation - Australian Government and Queensland Government, August 2017

The new Great Barrier Reef pollution plan is better, but still not good enough - article at The Conversation by Jon Brodie, Alana Grech and Laurence McCook.

Hughes, Terry P., James T. Kerry, Mariana Álvarez-Noriega, Jorge G. Álvarez-Romero, Kristen D. Anderson, Andrew H. Baird, Russell C. Babcock et al. "Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals." Nature 543, no. 7645 (2017): 373-377. doi: 10.1038/nature21707 (pdf here)

Global warming and repeated bouts of coral bleaching - Article by Terry Hughes in Nature Ecology and Evolution, March 2017

It’s either Adani or the Great Barrier Reef. Are we willing to fight for a wonder of the world? - article by Jeff Sparrow at The Guardian, 7 April 2017

Importance of Coral Reefs - NOAA article with links to other general information about corals

From the HotWhopper archives


  1. Sou, as you may be aware Clive James (National Treasure for both Oz and the UK) recently wrote a bilious essay attacking the theory of Global Warming , and climate scientists in general. In it he mentioned that scientists have been predicting the "imminent demise" of the Great Barrier Reef since the mid-1970s. He claims that, since the GBR has survived for forty years since this warning was issued, that their predictions are discredited. This reminds me of the "in the 1970s scientists told us the Planet was cooling" story.

    Do you know if there's any basis to his claim?

    1. No, since the GBR seems to be suffering more frequent and more severe bleaching incidents. Just because it ain't dead yet doesn't mean it ain't dying.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Clive James is probably referring to the crown-of-thorns starfish, which periodically boom and overgraze significant stretches of the Great Barrier Reef. There is some evidence that onshore land-use practices exacerbate CoT outbreaks, but their impact on the reef is somewhat separate to the more recent recognition of the susceptibility of coral to acidification and warming.

      Clive James' "it hasn't happened yet" mantra is a logical fallacy, because no scientist thinks that the Reef was 'supposed' to have been destroyed by now. It's a fantastically huge ecosystem, and it would take a long time to actually destroy it. What is concerning though is that the bleaching and subsequent killing of coral is now occurring at a rate greater than that initially predicted by the scientists who study the system. These scientists are not ones to have their heads in the sand, and they were expecting the worst down the track, but in the until recently they didn't think that the worst would occur so soon.

      Unfortunately the very worst is now locked in. The GBR is reeeling from the 1.0-1.2°C warming that we've manifested to date, and we're committed to ~1.7°C even if we stop all emissions today. The Paris limit of 2.0°C is a pipe-dream (let's not pretend otherwise...) and quite frankly we'll be lucky to stop before 3°C. The Great Barrier Reef is on a certain track to destruction (hey, UNESCO, you need to start facing up to this...) and we're really of the generations that have the "last chance to see" the reef as is used to be.

      Within the next half century or so the GBR as we know it will have followed the recently disappeared Tasmania giant kelp forests to extinction. Many other ecological communities will also be gone, and there'll be a mess of colonisation by generalist species, and even then there'll probably not be too much attention focussed on salvaging what's left, because humans will be preoccupied by the difficulties of protecting many of their own interests (which, ironically, include the ecology that we're throwing away).

      The fortunate amongst us though will have expired by then...

    4. Bill, he may have been thinking of the crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, though they rang alarm bells in the 1960s as well as the 70s (and afterwards). Pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff would have been a big concern for quite some time, too. Then there'd have been the issues around marine parks etc.

      He probably doesn't know about ocean acidification. Climate change and bleaching didn't become a public issue for the GBR until the 1980s AFAIK.

      I don't regard Clive James highly. He's got a clever tongue at times, but not much else. The natural world wouldn't mean anything to him unless his food, air and water ran out. He wouldn't be interested enough to distinguish the different dangers or their impacts on the reef. Nor does he care.

    5. Great minds, BernardJ :) (Our comments crossed.)

    6. Yeah Clive James is attacking a straw man.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Clive taught himself Russian when he was in his 50's so he could read the works of Pushkin, A. K. Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky in their original form.

      He may well have gone on to home-learn some useful science had his autodidactic journey not been disrupted by a friendship with professional science misinformer, Bob Carter.

      Here’s his obit for Carter in the Guardian.

      The Australian scientist Bob Carter died far too young. The climate change orthodoxy can be a tough proposition to be sceptical about if you mind being accused of betraying the future of the human race.

      Carter knew how to maintain a gentlemanly vocabulary even when the guardians of dogma were calling him names. It’s a hard trick to work: sometimes it’s just easier to join in and call your persecutors intensely dense. But Carter always behaved as if they might have had a point. Perhaps he was working on the principle that politeness is an argument in itself.

      Perhaps Bob Carter behaved as if they might have a point because in 2012 he was famously outed as being on the monthly payroll of the Heartland Institute.


  2. WUWT is a site that demonstrates how easy it is to fool stupid. Just post a headlie claiming anything that you want. Or even post a real scientific statement. Nobody will bother to go read the rest of the article. They're only interested in reading what confirms their bias.

    There is a pretty good video available on Netflix called Chasing Coral. They do a nice job of actually showing just how much damage they've found - all over the world.

    Anybody that thinks we're going to get along without coral is smoking crack. But then again, Watts is dumb as a stump and who knows what he smokes?


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