F**king up my grandchildren’s beaches

SMH Peter Hannam article

Brilliant SMH/Age science journo Peter Hannam wrote yesterday about a highly technical article just out from Griffith Uni researchers Joao Morin, Mark Herner, and Fernando Andutta. Here’s the original article. $8 for a layperson to even rent it out, with no means of storing it for future re-evaluation, is too expensive, so I’m reliant on Hannam’s interpretation and analysis, but that’s good enough for me because this research is stunningly difficult and still most uncertain. The conclusions refer to end-of-century unabated-emissions assumptions – call them imprecise! – but it’s the best we can do.

Here’s the Hannam skinny as crudely restated by me. Over the century warming-world-induced stronger winds mean that the nastier big ocean waves will occur 5-15% more often and will be 5-15% nastier and will shift direction. The reason I’m interested is that annual sea level rises of a few millimeters won’t soon swamp my hometown of Melbourne. But what seems to also happen is more frequent, more vicious storm-like surges that f**k up a shoreline as “oncer” events. The Griffith Uni tyros predict bigger whacks more often. Different surge directions in particular redistribute sand and shoreline in big licks. It seems North Atlantic shorelines might be pummelled less while my southern Australian beaches will change or vanish.

By itself this is all frustratingly vague to me – will shores near my grandchildren be inundated over, say, a decade or two? – but that’s the complexity our scientist-heroes face.

And Hannam points to a NSW coastal weather warning for “dangerous” and “rather rare” surges over the three days from tomorrow. Will Victorian beaches wilt similarly? My weather forecast checks don’t clarify but I’ve asked someone in the know and will watch out.

Thomas Moynihan on extinction

Thomas Moynihan essay on Aeon

Intellectually and emotional pursuing the future fate of fifteen bird species, a fate that must necessarily consider extinction, within the notion of the Anthropocene, a notion that encompasses human extinction, is terrifying. At its core might might be four questions. Will Cranes survive? So what? Will my grandchildren (or great grandchildren – what is the apt timeframe?) survive? So what do I do?

You think it easy to ponder extinction. Not so. Just asking those four questions clearly raises major ethical issues, for only in a perfect heaven can one guarantee everyone life forever.

Thomas Moynihan’s “The end of us,” published August 7 on Aeon, posits that only since the Enlightenment, perhaps the mid 18th century, have we humans even been able to consider species extinction (Moynihan deals with human extinction) and that this renders the extinction concept as one marking human maturity.

I was in a Nijmegen cafe, redrafting a chapter on 1950s reactors, when I turned to his well-written paper, and the leap from the former to the latter made me impatient. Surely the extinction “topic” first crescendo’d in the 60s/70s/80s, after Carson, Ehrlich, and cruise missiles? Surely any sense of philosophical “maturity” about extinction remains murky, in spite of damned fulsome knowledge, because some of us believe in obligations to future generations whilst most could not care less?

I’ve not treated Moynihan fairly, I know, but was and am asking a different extinction question to his. What that question is remains fuzzy.

(Image is from Aeon’s website article, just a screenshot)

Will my grandson snorkel the Great Barrier Reef?

Coral reefs

Back on July 27, journalist Guy Kelly’s “The biologist in a race against time to save the Great Barrier Reef” came out in the Telegraph Magazine, and I noticed it today (edited a bit) in the Good Weekend magazine of my paper back home, The Age. British (but now in Sydney) biologist Emma Camp and one of the world’s foremost climate change/coral reef experts spoke to, of all things, an explorers’ conference:

Climate change is compromising not just the Great Barrier Reef, but reefs globally. Warmer, more acidic, low-oxygen seawater is fundamentally affecting the biology of the corals, and this is compromising whether they’ll be able to exist in the future. In just three years, over a third of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost.

Camp turns out to be both pessimistic and optimistic. She is exploring the idea of grafting on coral evolved to exist in more acidic water, which sounded to me, as I read it, intriguing but most speculative. As Guy Kelly explores her scientific world, she ends up summing up:

The best case scenario in 50 years is that we have coral reefs that are still biodiverse, serving their function, and we have an even healthier marine environment than we do now, respecting biodiversity not just for its value to us as humans. The worst case scenario is that we’ve lost coral reefs as we know them. I don’t want to tell my future grandchildren that this was a privilege I had, but they won’t, and it was all because we didn’t do enough.

I reflected that my ongoing task is to clearly identify the truth about the world’s coral reefs (Guy’s article has a graphic showing the world’s eight major coral reefs, our Great Barrier Reef being the largest). I suspect the truth is more or less suppressed simply because of tourism impact. I think I’ll turn to the IPCC next.

Another heroic dispatch

Kristin Laidre photo

Our heroes: those battling inaction at home and those frenetically seeking to amass the evidence to compel action, i.e. our scientist-heroes. Check out arctic geologist Kristin Laidre on her way home from the far north:

Returned from field work in Greenland studying narwhals at 75N wearing t-shirts during a heatwave w/ glaciers calving off massive chunks, on the way home passed a wildfire burning on the coast & returning to US flew over endless melt pools. Climate change is real.

Breached dyke imagery

Jan Asselijn

A week ago at the Rijksmuseum, a 1651 Jan Asselijn painting gave me pause. I thought of all the shoreline residents who will inevitably persist in believing higher and higher levees will suffice for the coming sea level rises. And when those defences are swept aside…

Let’s e-attend funerals of glaciers…

Okjökull Glacier now dead

On my birthday, I checked out this NASA Earth Laboratory article. The Okjökull glacier was healthy in 1900, beginning to suffer in the late 40s, and was pronounced dead/gone/kaput in 2014. Five years ago! In three days, on the 18th, there will be a memorial atop where frozen snow used to tower. I, for one, will offer a brief heartfelt farewell. As glaciers vanish, as coral reefs die, as species go extinct, we should add our mental goodbyes. Goodbyes, after all, are goodbyes.

How to think about extinction

IUCN Red List

At the end of May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a UN body, released a policyholder summary of its staggeringly ambitious global assessment report on the state of the world vis a vis the environment. I expected to read, and did read, about humanity’s progress down the road described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her stunning 2014 book The Sixth Extinction. Put simply, our collective responsibility for mass species extinctions accelerates. As IPBES reports, around 25% of animals and plants are “threatened,” meaning that a million species may within decades face extinction. Apparently extinction’s harvest is being reaped hundreds of times faster than in “normal” times. No surprise also that climate change is winding the whole process up.

Oh, how frail I felt when reading the summary! Too expansive, too much to handle. So I decided that one ongoing task would involve narrowing my lens down to the fifteen Crane species I’ve begun to research. What are their prospects?

IPBES says 14% of bird species are under threat of extinction. This is way better than mammals (25%) and amphibians (40%), but we expect flight-powered birds to be able to flee humans better, and in any case 14% is one in seven! On examination it turns out IPBES obtains its extinction-risk data from the “Red List” of another international body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Red List has been going for half a century and it has nine categories of extinction risk. Although coverage of some species of living things is spotty, that of birds seems complete. At the frightening tail end, some 5% of bird species are close to the edge, classified as endangered or critically endangered.

Four of the fifteen crane species are “close to the edge” on the Red List. Eleven are under threat but not so much so. Only four of the fifteen can be seen as healthy in terms of 21st Century survival.

All of which, once more, left me drained. I also felt more lost than ever. I realize classifying extinction risk is subjective. It’s also political: developers downplay any risk, environmental activists seek funding. Right now, I’m no closer to understanding how my cranes will fare over my lifetime, let alone that of my grandchildren. I sighed: more work needed!

Animals vis a vis humans in the Anthropocene

Justine Calma article

A few months back, Grist’s marvellous Justine Calma wrote a piece entitled “Humans vs. animals: Can the climate movement have both mascots?” Yesterday in Amsterdam, I took a break from the fugue of book drafting and mused about her short think piece. Essentially, she says that even though “polar bear imagery [as one type of climate change imagery]. Is pretty much tapped out,” nature documentaries, narrated under a backdrop of warming-world threatens, remain potent. Compared to even a few years ago, any narrative connections need to be more subtle and detailed – if our “furry and feathered friends” are suffering (and they are), how are they trying to adapt and what is the message for us humans?

Hmmm. I feel, at some deep level, that the fifteen species of Cranes can tell me how to live. But I know so little! I’ve no biology background that allows me easily understand the Cranes. Yes, 11 of the 15 species are “threatened,” but what does that mean in real statistical terms, let alone for majestic individual birds living their lives in 2019? Calma’s article also alerts me to a core writing issue: how do I write about Cranes in a way that intrigues and hopefully enthrals readers?

The Grist article foregrounds the new Nat Geo series Hostile Planet. I haven’t yet taken steps to access HBO series and now resolve to do so. And I resolve to complete the anxiety-inducing viewing of Attenborough’s Our Planet series.

Carbon dioxide at July 27

Mauna Loa carbon dioxide levels

Andrew Robbie at the CICERO Centre for International Climate Research puts out the above graphic (with full referencing for data sourcing). At that link you can also view it as a little film that builds up the layers. Look how carbon in our atmosphere never fails to build higher, even as we fuss over our plastic bags and food waste and all those wonderful “I can make a difference” options. Look how fat the increase over the corresponding number in 2018 is. I’ve been staring at charts like this one for two decades (I know, that’s a shorter period than it should have been, I also was asleep) and they make me dread for my cranes. But I remember advice given to me once: never look away from the data.