Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar
I was reminded of this Mark Twain quote by a recent paper called “Acute sun damage and photoprotective responses in whales” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (hereinafter “Sunburnt Whales”). Their Abstract reads in part:
We conducted photographic and histological surveys of three seasonally sympatric whale species to investigate sunburn and photoprotection. We find that lesions commonly associated with acute severe sun damage in humans are widespread and that individuals with fewer melanocytes have more lesions and less apoptotic cells. This suggests that the pathways used to limit and resolve UVR-induced damage in humans are shared by whales and that darker pigmentation is advantageous to them.
Figure 1. A whale working on suntanning its stomach
So what does Pudd’nhead Wilson have to do with sunburnt whales?
Unfortunately, the authors of Sunburnt Whales did not stop with learning the wisdom in the experience. They went on to tell us how the whales are being threatened by the upcoming Thermageddon™:
Taken together, our results show that whales exhibit lesions typical of acute UVR exposure, suggesting that the thinning ozone layer poses a significant and rising threat to the health of our oceans’ whales. Considering that UVR is expected [by climate models] to increase 4 per cent in the tropics and up to 20 per cent in the poles, more studies are needed to fully understand the consequences of UVR-induced damage and the evolutionary significance of cetacean pigmentation.
OK, what’s their evidence for that? Well, they measured UV-induced blisters and a corresponding measure of UV exposure called “cytoplasmic vacuolation” in a small number of whales in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Both measures increased over the period, although the changes were statistically insignificant for cytoplasmic vacuolation.
For the blisters, in 2007, 12% of the whales had blisters (N, the number of whales measured, was 48). In 2008, 28% had blisters (N=28). In 2009, 68% had blisters (N=22). How do they explain that?
Despite the short time frame, our results would suggest that, as predicted, heightened exposure to UVR secondary to global and regional ozone depletion is leading to more skin damage in whales.
Say what? They’re claiming that the large two-year changes in whale skin health was caused by increased UV … but unfortunately, there’s a huge, glaring problem with their claim. According to NASA:
UV Exposure Has Increased Over the Last 30 Years, but Stabilized Since the Mid-1990s
There has been no increase in the UV radiation in the last fifteen years … but the authors of Sunburnt Whales claim that increased UV has caused whale blisters to quintuple (five times as many) in two short years.
Now I’m sorry, but I simply don’t believe that claim. I can believe that whales have more blisters. But I don’t believe that UV radiation, which has not changed in the last 15 years, has caused whale blisters to suddenly increase five-fold in two years.
They claim that this blister increase is related to the fact that these whales spend time in Baja California, where tropical UV levels are high. But UV levels have changed less in the Tropics than elsewhere. NASA (op. cit.) says about the post-1979 increase:
The high latitudes of the southern hemisphere have seen ultraviolet exposure increase by as much as a quarter. The low latitudes have seen little increase, and the mid-and-high latitudes of the northern hemisphere have seen about a five percent increase.
The low latitudes, where Baja California is located, have seen “little increase” in general, and even less in the last 15 years. So no, I don’t think UV increases are harming the whales, because for the last 15 years UV hasn’t increased. And in Baja California, even the increase since 1979 is on the order of only 5% or less.
Judith Curry keeps on about how we need to repair the trust between the public and climate scientists, and I agree with her. However, she thinks the scientists are not explaining things well, that it is a communications problem.
I say the problem has nothing to do with communication. The problem is bogus climate science being shovelled in our direction by the Royal Society and the other “scientific” journals. Until this kind of bovine waste-product stops being shipped in containers saying “100% Peer Reviewed Climate Science Inside”, people are not going to believe anything a climate scientist says, even though it may, through some unusual combination of misunderstandings and coincidences, actually be true. How does this kind of clearly nonsensical junk ever, ever get through peer review?
Oh, yeah, one final note. Seems to me if you want to see if the UV exposure is increasing the blisters on whales, how about measure some whales year after year and see if the blisters are increasing? Seems like a bozo move, simple, give you good data to confirm or deny the hypothesis.
Which is probably why the authors of Sunburnt Whales were very careful not to do that. They report:
In each season recaptured individuals were excluded from the analyses, the first capture being the one included.
Yeah, that’s the way to tell whether blisters are increasing, throw out valid data … not. Where is the headslap icon when I need it?
PS – I’m back in the Solomon Islands for a week, where even the electrons move slowly, so my replies may be delayed … have patience.
PPS – After writing this but before posting it, I discovered that the Proceedings of the Royal Society B have a letter responding to the study, which says in part:
This article is quite interesting in that the exposure of whales to UV and their response in terms of skin cancer lesions suggests the need to worry about the possible future effects of climate change on wildlife. This suggests that any non-fur protected or pigment protected species is at risk. The risk is higher at the equator where the protective ozone layer is naturally less than at mid and high latitudes.
However, the attribution of the observations to existing changes in UVR is misleading at best. In the equatorial regions, there have been no statistically significant changes in UVR [Herman, 2010 in JGR]. The significant changes start as small increases at mid latitudes, which only become medically significant at high latitudes. Unless I missed it, the article does not mention cancer lesion measurements from the past as an indicator that there has been any change in the whale’s health over time. The lack of cause and effect studies makes the statements about ozone change in this article “alarmist”. There are enough real problems with climate change and chlorine induced ozone change without suggesting unproven and unlikely problems. …
What he said …