Guest essay by Jim Steele
Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University and author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism
Recently The Australian published an article by Graham Lloyd, “Great Barrier Battleground Over Coral Bleaching”. Lloyd quotes 2 of Hoegh-Guldberg’s claims that are not quite an honest representation of the state of the coral debates. First Hoegh-Guldberg falsely claims, “Arguments that corals will acclimate to predicted patterns of temperature change are unsubstantiated and evidence suggests that the genetic ability of corals to acclimate is already being exceeded.” But Hoegh-Guldberg’s catastrophic projections are equally unsubstantiated. It will require 35 years to test his unsubstantiated catastrophic predictions that “as much as 95% [of the world’s coral] may be in danger of being lost by mid-century.”
While Hoegh-Guldberg suggests climate change is coral’s greatest threat, the latest research from coral reefs surrounding uninhabited islands (Smith 2016) suggests that that the greatest anthropogenic factors affecting coral are disturbances such as landscape changes that affect sediments and runoff, as well as dynamite and cyanide fishing and overfishing, and other human disturbances. As Dr. Jennifer Smith, lead author of the study and professor at Scripps’ Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation states, “There are still coral reefs on this planet that are incredibly healthy and probably look the way they did 1,000 years ago.” Such a statement suggests undisturbed reefs have been acclimating quite well to rising CO2. Reef destruction is more of a local problem and our conservation efforts are best directed towards those more destructive local activities affecting reefs.
Furthermore his claim that “evidence suggests that the genetic ability of corals to acclimate is already being exceeded” is patently false. As described in detail in the essay The Coral Bleaching Debate: Is Bleaching the Legacy of a Marvelous Adaptation Mechanism or A Prelude to Extirpation?, coral must be seen as “ecospecies” with the ability of coral to shift and shuffle their symbionts. The ability to rapidly acquire stress tolerant symbionts has been increasingly demonstrated. Likewise the peer-reviewed literature has archived many studies revealing species that had undergone a previous bleaching event are now observed to exhibit greater resistance to subsequent bleaching. Hoegh-Guldberg 2014 even admitted there are many published reports of coral adaptation but argues that “Most studies that make this claim have correctly identified components and mechanisms but have otherwise incorrectly extended this evidence which is otherwise necessary but not sufficient to support the conclusion that coral reefs will survive due to their ability to acclimatise, adapt and/or migrate to the current rapid environmental changes.” But Hoegh-Guldberg’s objections are again more aptly applied to his insufficient catastrophic assertions that corals’ ability “to acclimate has been exceeded”. Those “correctly identified components and mechanisms” of adaptation are more pieces of the emerging evidence that coral can acclimate to current and projected climate change. And that emerging evidence undermines Hoegh-Guldberg’s claim of 95% decimation by mid century.
Additionally the fact that coral thrived during the Holocene Optimum when tropical warm pool temperatures were 2.1 C warmer than today, is consistent with the emerging evidence that coral can adapt to warmer temperatures. Altogether the claims of resilience are more scientifically robust than the catastrophic claims constantly fed to media outlets that thrive on a “if it bleeds, it reads” mentality. Again “sufficient proof” for and against any claims will not be supplied until there are a few more decades of observations.
Second, Lloyd quotes Hoegh-Guldberg’s apocryphal claim, “One stark reminder of how things are changing is the fact there is no scientific evidence of mass coral bleaching and mortality prior to 1980.” As discussed in The Coral Bleaching Debate: Is Bleaching the Legacy of a Marvelous Adaptation Mechanism or A Prelude to Extirpation?, the lack of global satellite coverage before the mid 70s, the distractions of 2 world wars and the lack of scuba equipment prevented gathering sufficient evidence of extensive past bleaching events. There has been ample evidence of local bleaching events in the past, but due to the scarcity of observational oppportunuties before the 1970s, no one can reliably claim there was no mass bleaching before the 1980s. However there have been growing research efforts seeking to detect past bleaching events via proxy data. The most promising techniques evaluate changes in boron isotope ratios as a measure of past changes in pH and bleaching events. Although there have been a growing number of observations of widespread bleaching over the past 2 decades, the majority of those bleaching events were short term and mild. And as discussed in Schoepf 2014, similar short-term bleaching events in the past are not reliably detected from boron proxy data.
However Dishon 2015 now reports that their methodologies are likely to detect the more severe bleaching events, concluding, “our findings provide evidence that coral bleaching may not be an exclusively modern phenomenon and we have identified at least two instances since the LGM (~20 kyr BP) prior to the industrial revolution where coral bleaching likely occurred. If short-term bleaching is indeed untraceable with d11B measurements, then the suspected paleo-bleaching events may be a result of longer sustained bleaching events, possibly comparable with contemporary worrisome mass bleaching episodes.” More importantly Dishon’s methodology also detected sustained bleaching events in both the most recent decades as well as during the 1920s to 40s, before rising CO2 was ever considered a significant factor. Severe bleaching in the early 20th century suggests bleaching events were more likely driven by natural changes in ocean circulation rather than radiative forcing from the sun or rising CO2. It is interesting to note those bleaching events also coincided with the early 20th century rapid rise in air temperatures around Greenland and the 1930s Arctic loss of sea ice that rivaled present day reductions.
As illustrated in Figure 3 (from Dishon 2015), the dotted horizontal line represents a change in the boron isotope ratio presumed to be associated with sustained bleaching events. The vertical red bars represent periods during which proxy data suggests periods of sustained bleaching. It is also worth noting that proxy estimates of pH show rapid changes in pH that do not correlate with changes in CO2.
Despite Lloyd’s rather balanced article, the blogger and skeptic basher Readfearn has accused Lloyd’s article of sophistry. Yet Readfearn provides no substantive scientific rebuttals. Readfearn also quotes Hoegh-Guldberg whose rebuttal to Lloyd’s article likewise offers no scientific substance. Instead Hoegh-Guldberg triggers Sagan’s science baloney alert by “attacking the arguers and not their arguments focusing on 3 individuals: myself, Dr. Judith Curry and Dr. Peter Ridd, who was oddly censured for whistle-blowing exaggerated coral death claims.
Readfearn quotes Hoegh-Guldberg,
“When you look into the background of each individual, you find that Peter Ridd is a sedimentologist, Judith Curry a climatologist, and Jim Steele – a bird enthusiast who works in the Sierra Nevada – which at last count appears to be a long way from a coral reef.
I don’t think there is a single scientist at this meeting who will support the position taken by sedimentologist Peter Ridd or, for that matter, Curry and Steele. That is pretty telling. Not exactly your most qualified experts. None of them has published in the peer-reviewed literature on coral bleaching – they are simply not experts.”
Although I am honored that my analyses were so compelling that Hoegh-Guldberg felt a need to “look into my background”, that he dismissed a thoroughly referenced essay, The Coral Bleaching Debate: Is Bleaching the Legacy of a Marvelous Adaptation Mechanism or A Prelude to Extirpation?, simply because I am also a” bird enthusiast” doing ecological research in the Sierra Nevada is “pretty telling” of how politics has undermined the scientific process. Such a ridiculous dismissal is analogous to denigrating a historian’s account of the Little Ice Age because the historian did not live during Little Ice Age. Historians need not have lived during the LIA, or any other period in order to analyze the available data and speak insightfully about those times. Likewise educated ecologists, well grounded in fundamental biological and ecological processes are quite capable of analyzing and synthesizing peer reviewed coral literature from the an office in California.
Publishing one’s research never means the researcher’s conclusions are correct. Nor does the lack of a publication mean a scientist’s views are irrelevant or incorrect. Publications are simply a vehicle that allows a researcher to publicly share interpretations and encourage others to examine, critically dissect and discuss the validity of those published conclusions. Self-proclaimed experts have littered the peer-reviewed literature with incorrect interpretations. The foundation of the scientific process requires lively discussions by independent thinkers that eventually promote an improved understanding. In contrast Hoegh-Guldberg’s is trying to stifle that process and limit debate.
Furthermore to suggest “not a single scientist” will support my position ignores the fact that “my position” is based on the research of many coral experts referenced in the essay. Many of those referenced experts have determined symbiont shuffling and shifting endows coral with superior adaptive strategies and resilience. Many of those experts have also challenged Hoegh-Guldberg’s proclamations that corals’ genetic ability “to acclimate is already being exceeded”. But Hoegh-Guldberg’s empty assertions are a common dishonest tactic used to marginalize skeptics who have quite accurately pointed out the shortcomings of his catastrophic interpretations. It is a tactic that Sagan’s baloney alert warns we should avoid or ignore. I wonder how many scientists at the International Coral Reef Symposium agree with Hoegh-Guldberg’s assertion that 95% of the coral will be lost by mid century?
Dr. Peter Ridd has publically pointed out that some of the photographs used to suggest rising CO2 has been killing coral are misleading and prone to exaggeration. For example he has argued that “it’s not possible to say what killed off parts of the reef featured in 1994 photos…In fact, there are literally hundreds of square kilometres of dead reef-flat on the Great Barrier Reef which was killed due to the slow sea-level fall of about a meter that has occurred over the last 5000 years.”
Other “dead reefs” are the result of recent tropical storms or depredation from Crown of Thorns starfish. In the face of natural annual destruction, coral have evolved the capabilities to rapidly recover from most natural devastating disruptions within one or two decades.
Lloyd had reported in an earlier The Australian article that other experts had denounced the exaggerated reef destruction. For example Dr Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, withdrew from a joint announcement on coral bleaching with Professor Hughes “because we didn’t think it told the whole story”. Dr Reichelt said, “I don’t know whether it was a deliberate sleight of hand or lack of geographic knowledge but it certainly suits the purpose of the people who sent it out.”
In the comments section Professor Ridd wrote, “I find it interesting that The Head of GBRMPA has said that Prof Terry Hughes organisation was “misleading” the public.
I recently made a similar comment of Prof Hughes organisation (COE Coral Reef Studies at JCU) about a related issue – they stated that there was no coral on a particular reef and I furnished photographic evidence that this was incorrect. I stated that the information from Hughes organisation was “misleading” among other things including that there is clearly a need for some better quality assurance of the science.
For my sins, I was hit with an academic misconduct charge from JCU, found guilty, and duly threatened with dismissal if I transgressed again.”
So how does Hoegh-Guldberg scientifically refute Ridd’s testimony of coral exaggeration? He doesn’t! Instead Hoegh-Guldberg reverts to attacking the arguer by simplistically stating, “Peter Ridd is a sedimentologist” and intimates the views of a sedimentologist are irrelevant, even though Dr. Ridd has been involved in critical research analyzing the effect of sediments on coral reefs.
In response to Ridd’s odd censure by James Cook University for questioning his colleagues, climate scientist Dr. Judith Curry described it as “the latest perversion in research ethics”. So how did Hoegh-Guldberg refute Curry’s statement. He doesn’t! He simply dismisses her analysis because, “Judith Curry a climatologist” as if a climate scientist is incapable of understanding research ethics.
So what can we conclude about Hoegh-Guldberg’s expertise and integrity? Clearly when Hoegh-Guldberg cannot defend his catastrophic claims, he prefers to play “shoot the messenger”, which triggers Sagan’s baloney alert. My question to Hoegh-Guldberg is ‘how could a mere “bird enthusiast” doing research in the Sierra Nevada also know about Dishon 2015’s research suggesting sustained bleaching during the early 20th century, while a “coral expert” like Hoegh-Guldberg insists it is a “fact there is no scientific evidence of mass coral bleaching and mortality prior to 1980.” Or how does a mere “bird enthusiast” discuss the ample peer-reviewed evidence regards symbiont shifting and shuffling that calls in to question any claims that the “ability of corals to acclimate is already being exceeded”? Why does an expert like Hoegh-Guldberg relentlessly deny the emerging evidence? Clearly more objective analyses require the perspectives from a variety of scientists who are not so invested in his catastrophic point of view.
Jim Steele is author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism