When global warming and shifting-baselines syndrome collide

We are having a strange summer in South Australia. First it was mild, then it was late, now it’s hot. So, the weather is a hot topic (pardon the pun) in every conversation. Invariably, conversation then leads onto climate and global warming. And that’s where things get interesting because, as I’ve discussed before, humans and all other organisms experience weather, not climate. In one such conversation with a friend I brought up an excellent article published recently in The Conversation. The article outlines a scary truth; by the end of February 2015 the global temperature has been above the long-term average for 30 years (see the second figure from NOAA, below). My friend said to me, in a very tongue-in-cheek way, “well, I’m 30-ish, which means that they ARE average temperatures to me!”

And that is part of the problem with climate change. It is now easy to demonstrate that temperatures are warming. In Australia, we’re starting to get used to hot summers and bush fires. Even amongst normal inter-annual variation, it’s certainly not difficult to see where the temperature trend is going from the temperature records:

This pattern is repeated globally:

But why can’t we seem to accept the data to all agree that the earth is warming and that we’re the cause?

The problem is three-fold. First, there is the shifting-baselines syndrome. Basically, the idea behind this syndrome is that what you experience in your lifetime is “normal” to you. As with my friend, if you’re only 30 years old (or younger!) then these current temperatures are “normal”. But that doesn’t mean that they ARE normal; the data clearly show that we’re warming outside pre-industrial climatic patterns.

Second, and related to the first, is that we only experience weather. If it rains, we get wet. If it’s winter, we put on a jacket. If it’s summer, we go swimming. We don’t experience “averages.” Some colleagues and I recently published a paper explaining the different effects of climate and weather, noting that without understanding these differences we will not be able to predict what will happen to our marine ecosystems. Yet, policy-makers generally conflate climate with weather, and so we continue to hold to bad policy.

The third, and possibly worst reason, is that in an attempt to “sell the story” the global media still pretends to provide a balanced report. What this means for them is that one person who speaks out against the science underpinning our understanding of climate change gets equal voice to the thousands of scientists who recognise the rigor of this science. That is not only unbalanced, but simply confuses the public into thinking that there is some debate. There is not. To paraphrase the start of the Conversation article, let’s call it, the climate has changed and we’re the cause.

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Can nature compensate for human impacts?

Algal turfs dominating under acidified conditions at cold-water (temperate) CO2 seeps, which we use at "natural experiments". You can just see the fronds of a solitary kelp plant in the right of the photo, otherwise they are rare at the site (when they should be 8 - 10 plants per metre!).

Algal turfs dominating under acidified conditions at cold-water (temperate) CO2 vents, which we use at “natural experiments” to try and understand the effects of carbon emissions on our oceans. You can just see the fronds of a solitary kelp plant in the right of the photo, otherwise they are rare at the site (when they should be 8 – 10 plants per metre!). This is a system that has been pushed past its ability to resist or compensate for human activities.

One thing that humans are really good at is having an impact on the environment through their activities. The problem is that we generally don’t realise that we’re having an impact until something changes in a drastic way. We talk about things called phase-shifts, where the environment changes from one “phase” to another. Good (and unfortunately common) examples are the loss of kelp forests for bare reef, seagrass meadows for bare sand, or coral reefs for algal habitats. In all of these cases, the environment has been degraded to the point where it no longer functions as it should, meaning that biodiversity and productivity are massively reduced.

There are two questions to ask here, (1) why don’t we see these phase-shifts coming, and (2) does nature have any resistance to them? A new paper by one of my PhD students, Giulia Ghedini, shows that nature may actually try to resist human-caused stressors (such as increased nutrient pollution, ocean acidification, warming) by increasing the strength of compensation. In this case, Giulia found that the compounding effects of multiple disturbances increasingly promoted the expansion of weedy algal turfs (which replace kelp forests), but that this response was countered by a proportional increase in grazing of those same turfs by gastropods. This is a natural compensatory mechanism, but it has limits.

What does this mean for our understanding of phase-shifts? First, it means that nature is stronger at resisting than we realised. BUT, because it is extremely difficult to either see or quantify this resistance we generally don’t realise it is happening…. until it stops. Then, once we push the systems past their ability to compensate for the increased pressure we place on them we see a sudden shift. It’s like watching a duck on a river – it may look extremely calm on the surface, seemingly stationary, but underneath it is paddling extremely hard. At some point the current strengthens too much and it can’t paddle harder and so, seemingly suddenly, the duck begins to float down the river.

Unfortunately, when put together, this means that more systems may be more stressed than we realise, and the only way to stop detrimental phase-shifts is to take the conservative approach and start to reduce our impacts on these systems. For example, we know that nutrient pollution, carbon emissions, overfishing and many other activities have damaged marine ecosystems, why not begin to reduce our impacts before we add more systems to the list of those we didn’t realise were at breaking point?

Declining productivity

We’ve all heard about productivity, but I suspect that the only context most people have heard the term used in is about the productivity of the workplace, or perhaps the economy.

Phytoplankton may be tiny but they are the base for much of what we see and use in the ocean!

Phytoplankton may be tiny but they are the base for much of what we see and use in the ocean!

Economists and governments are certainly concerned with productivity. But, we should all be concerned with productivity – of the oceans.
As we burn more fossil fuels and pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere we are making astonishing changes to the global climate systems. Not the least of these is the addition of billions of tons of CO2 to the surface waters of the ocean. What does this mean for productivity of the oceans? A cursory analysis would lead you to believe that because many photosynthetic plants and algae can use in photosynthesis that productivity would increase. As the oceans produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe and provide us with a substantial amount of food and other resources you may think that this would be a good thing. Unfortunately, the evidence is stacking up that productivity won’t increase, and in fact it is likely to decrease.
I have previously posted on work by my research group where we experimentally project that ecosystem productivity in temperate waters is likely to decrease because of an indirect effect whereby highly productive kelp forests will be replaced by lower productivity systems dominated by algal mats. Of potentially greater concern, however, is the emerging data from open-ocean pelagic systems. Recent work by Professor Kunshan Gao from the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science, Xiamen University, has demonstrated that the projected concentrations of CO2 in our oceans by 2050 (assuming we don’t suddenly decide to stop burning carbon!) will actually cause a decrease in the productivity of phytoplankton. And, the situation was even worse when the phytoplankton were exposed to increased light intensity, which will happen as the upper ocean that they live in shoals towards the surface. This result was initially surprising given that both light and CO2 are required for photosynthesis. In combination and high enough concentrations, however, they inhibit photosynthesis, leading to a decline in productivity.

What does all this mean? The changes that are happening in the ocean because of changes to our climatic systems, including (but not limited to) increased availability of CO2, ocean acidification and warming are going to be with for a very long time. The resources that we currently expect from the oceans will change, many declining. How do we stop this? By being a little smart – let’s stop burning carbon for fuel!

Eutrophication offsets sea urchin grazing on seagrass caused by warming and OA

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow. Photo: Owen Burnell

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow.
Photo: Owen Burnell

The title to this blog seems a bit counterintuitive, almost like eutrophication is a good thing. Don’t believe that for a second! In a recently published paper, Owen Burnell of the University of Adelaide presents some interesting data on the interactions between eutrophication (an all too common local stressor), ocean acidification and warming (both increasingly alarming stressors of global origin). As I keep discovering, interactions between these stressors never seem to turn out the way we expect:

The accumulation of atmospheric [CO2] continues to warm and acidify oceans concomitant with local disturbances, such as eutrophication. These changes can modify plant– herbivore grazing interactions by affecting the physiology of grazers and by altering the nutritional value of plants. However, such environmental changes are often studied in isolation, providing little understanding of their combined effects. We tested how ocean warming and acidification affect the per capita grazing by the sea urchin Amblypneustes pallidus on the seagrass Amphibolis antarctica and how such effects may differ between ambient and eutrophic nutrient conditions. Consistent with metabolic theory, grazing increased with warming, but in contrast to our expectations, acidification also increased grazing. While nutrient enrichment reduced grazing, it did not fully counterbalance the increase associated with warming and acidification. Collectively, these results suggest that ocean warming and acidification may combine to strengthen top-down pressure by herbivores. Localised nutrient enrichment could ameliorate some of the increased per capita grazing effect caused by warming and acidification, provided other common negative effects of eutrophication on seagrass, including overgrowth by epiphytes and herbivore aggregation, are not overwhelming. There is value in assessing how global and local environmental change will combine, often in non-intuitive ways, to modify biological interactions that shape habitats.

Digital library

Aquatic body parts reveal all

This post is written by guest blogger Dr Zoë Doubleday, who is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Marine Biology Program at The University of Adelaide. She has a particular interest in the utilisation of hard calcified tissues found in aquatic organisms as tools for answering critical questions in aquatic ecology. What interests me about Zoe’s work is how you can apply the techniques below to understanding past environmental conditions in the ocean and what that can tell us about the future…..

Zoe

When you look at a tree stump what do you see? That’s right, rings, rings radiating out from the center to the edge; rings that represent the growth history of the tree.  Aquatic species also have rings laid down like this, year after year, decade after decade, in all kinds of body parts.  Fish and squid ear bones, shark vertebrae, coral skeletons, marine mammal teeth, bivalve and gastropod shells, cuttlefish bones. . .and the list goes on.  The beauty of hard calcified tissues is that many form growth rings with a precise periodicity (e.g. daily or annual), providing a time-calibrated archive of biological and environmental information.  To extract information from these natural chronometers we can analyse their chemical composition (such as trace elements and isotopes) and examine their growth ring

The otolith (ear bone) of a Murray Cod showing annual growth rings. Photo: Zoe Doubleday

The otolith (ear bone) of a Murray Cod showing annual growth rings. Photo: Zoe Doubleday

patterns (such as number and width) in relation to the temporal context of ring formation.  From here we can examine both the biological history (e.g. age, growth, diet, and movement) and environmental history (e.g. temperature and salinity) of an individual from birth to death.  This type of data can additionally tell us two important things: how the environment is changing and what biological impact that environmental change is having.

Another valuable attribute of calcified tissues is that they can hang around long after the organism has died.  This allows us to compare information derived from modern-day samples with information derived from historical (e.g. 19th and 20th Century), archeological and even paleontological samples.  Such comparisons are very powerful and can provide a rare and crucial insight into past biological baselines and what aquatic environments may have been like, say, prior to industrial-scale fishing or European colonization. This in turn can help us make a more realistic assessment of how much humans have impacted, and are impacting, the environment and about what environmental changes might happen in the future.

In the Marine Biology Program, we have a number of biochronologists working away on a range

Red Gurnard Perch (deep-water marine fish) ear bone with growth ring measurements. Photo: Gretchen Grammer

Red Gurnard Perch (deep-water marine fish) ear bone with growth ring measurements. Photo: Gretchen Grammer

of calcified tissues collected from freshwater to oceanic environments.  From here we are linking chemical and growth pattern data to various climatic and oceanographic variables, tracking movement patterns of individuals over large spatial and temporal scales, and seeing how biological indices, such as growth rate, age, and diet are changing.  However, there is still much to discover and uncover in calcified tissues and, in my opinion, is a mu ch underutilized resource of historical data, particularly in Australia.  As we continue to dig up long forgotten sample archives, find novel body parts with chronological properties, and work with constantly evolving analytical technology, who knows what we will find next…

Vertebra of Port Jackson Shark. Photo: Chris Izzo

Vertebra of Port Jackson Shark. Photo: Chris Izzo

Disrupting synergies – making things not so bad.

Healthy forest of the kelp Ecklonia radiataI’ve posted on synergies between environmental stressors (what most people think of as pollution) before. Basically, a synergy is when the impact of the two stressors, say increased CO2 nd nutrients, is greater than the sum of their individual impacts. Once you recognise that synergies can occur, and are often much worse than we predict, the next question is can we do anything to stop them? The short answer is in most cases yes.

The way that synergies work means that, theoretically, if you remove one of the stressors then the “extra” impact should also be removed. In essence, if a synergy is 1 + 1 = 5, then removing 1 means that 1 + 0 = 1. When you’re talking about impacts to ecosystems that are essential to our GDP and way of life (not to mention that they have intrinsic value anyway) that is a really big consideration.

One of my Ph.D. students has just published a rather elegant study demonstrating it is possible to disrupt a synergy between CO2 and nutrients that has the potential to cause the loss of our kelp forest ecosystems. Basically, where CO2 and nutrients cause the synergistic growth of “weedy” species of algae you can remove the nutrients and remove the synergy. There is, however, a caveat. If you wait to remove the nutrients from the system then a large part of the impact will remain – things won’t go back to normal.

The thing that I like most about this outcome is that it provides useful information to the people who manage our coastal waters. If you are concerned that increasing concentrations of CO2 will have a negative impact in areas around major population centres then recycling and redirecting treated waste water away from the ocean, such as into industry or agriculture, can increase the resilience of marine systems. But, timing matters. Sooner is better.

Common synergies

Image

Algal turfs (brown fuzzy stuff) are overgrowing the hard corals at high CO2 concentrations near volcanic vents – a good “natural” experiment. Note also that the seagrass (green, long leaves) are also doing well – a subject for another post.

We frequently hear about “climate change” in the media these days. How could you avoid it? If you do a search of the scientific literature there are thousands of publications a year on the topic. When thinking about the worlds oceans, the most common things that we hear about are ocean warming or ocean acidification (aka. the “evil twin” of warming). Do you notice somthing about this statement? We hear about warming OR acidification. But is this a realistic scenario?

We as scientists commonly break things down into their components and try to understand them one at a time. This is understandable, because the best way to comprehend the functioning of amazingly complex systems is to break them down their component parts and then put them back together again. In this case, however, we are just starting to understand that by breaking things down to individual conditions, either temperature or acidification, we may be missing the most important part of the study. My research group started to realise this in 2009 when we discovered that, when increased in combination, carbon dioxide and nutrients had a massive effect on the growth of “weedy” species of algae which can help to maintain the loss of kelp forests (download the paper here). In hindsight, this result should not be so surprising – both carbon and nitrogen are resources which the algae use to grow. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

What was surprising is that when carbon dioxide was elevated in the absence of nutrients these algae didn’t respond by grow faster. In fact, they didn’t respond at all to the increased availability of carbon. This means that CO2 and nutrients cause a synergistic response in these algae – where the response to the combined conditions is greater than the sum of responses to the individual conditions (see here for a good review on the topic).

What now worries us is that increasing availability of carbon in the oceans will happen with ocean warming – these are not either/or conditions. Indeed, the first warning shots were fired when we discovered that these same “weedy” turf algae showed the same synergistic growth in response to combined CO2 and warming (see our results published here). We can do something about nutrient pollution (something I will post on in the near future), but CO2 and warming are inherently linked. I think it is time to not talk about warming or acidification but rather to discuss them in tandem.