Corals, Climate, and Carbon Dioxide
Research report by Brian R. Mommsen
For the 'CoralSavers Foundation' - Palau
There is an old saying; "The whole is greater than the sum of the parts". When we study ecological systems, large or small, we can isolate many of the separate influences, but we are never able to identify them all or completely explain their interactions, and therefore, we may never understand the total complexity of ecological systems. For this reason we can not have complete faith in the ability of any computer models to predict future behavior of any large scale natural system - especially a system as complex as the weather for the whole planet!
The Earth's climatic system is so complex that scientists still have trouble getting computer models to predict even minor climate changes for more then just a few days. Which means that there is always the opportunity for corruption of model results on longer periods of predicted global weather change that could possibly benefit the bias of those conducting the tests and benefit the political agenda of the sponsors of such testing. So we have a lot more to learn and to study about ecosystems, climate, and computer modelling before we get too emotional about the 'greenhouse effect', and we have to be cautious about accepting any scientific information that is used in the political arena.
Rational study and analysis is based on data provided by objective scientific research - proven facts about our world. Hypothesis and theory are tools for the scientific investigation of the natural world. But theories should not be confused with fact or they may lead to actions that actually hinder desired goals. The objective and rational approach to problem solving also requires making distinctions between what is known and what is conjecture. Often in those cases where science gives us the 'how' of a specific phenomena - the scientists still can not give us the 'why'. We can expand on the limits of our tools to dissect the universe - but we have yet to start expanding our intelligence limitations.
So what is the objective approach to the investigation and understanding of the earth's ecological systems and climate? We study the known facts and strive to recognize natural patterns. There is another saying that carries much meaning; "Correct questions are more elusive then correct answers - for in every carefully thought out question lies the key to discovering the answer". When we look at any type of system in the universe we can see that they are all self-organizing / self-regulating, - from the micro (atoms) to the macro (galaxies). Recognizing the known distinct patterns of past and present weather/geological change, and how they relate to one another, is where we can find clues about the future patterns of global climatic change. Wheels within wheels.
I am not suggesting the world's ecosystem works like a simple mechanical clock - I've already said that the Earth's environment is extremely complicated. But for our purposes here, I am going to try to keep to known facts and deal with them as simply as possible. Scientists have already done the basic work of identifying our past weather over millions of years and have those patterns as fact - but of course they are still looking into the causes of those patterns. What I am suggesting is that we can gain a better understanding of the present and possible future global weather by looking at the planet's weather through geological time.
What can that tell us? First of all, it tells us that the Earth has experienced several great cataclysmic events before man arrived, perhaps greater disasters then man is capable of inducing, and still our planet has evolved into our present Eden! Here is a graph of the previous 'jolts to the system'. These extinctions have removed 90% of the species that have ever existed.
As to the 'causes' of these cataclysmic events, we have the usual suspects - collisions between Earth and comets and asteroids, releases into the atmosphere of tremendous volumes of carbon dioxide and methane through tectonic plate movement and volcanism. Besides the direct and immediate biological consequences of those deadly events, the events also put the Earth's climate through many wild swings that effected all life for tens to millions of years.
REVIEWING THE FACTS
The coral reefs:
1) Corals have been around for about 400 million years
2) Modern day reef builders of the Scleractinic coral family have been around for 250 million years
3) Climate change (ice age -then tropical period - then ice age again) and sea levels (+/-500') has been radical over geological time
4) After 17 major oceanic and climatic earth changes of the past 250 million years, today's reef building corals are still with us - proving they are very resilient to extreme change
5) Modern corals have undergone their greatest growth rates and distribution during the warmest of the geological climatic periods
6) We are in a inter-glacial period now, which means that one way or another the planet will experience another ice age - this is 'normal'
7) Ice ages are preceded by, and end with, global warming - this is the normal macro oscillation throughout Earth's climatic history. Micro oscillations also occur within each macro period (minor Earth cooling and heating periods)
8) Careful studies of the calcification rates of corals have shown much greater coral growth decreases in the 17th and 18th centuries as compared to today's rates, which further complicates the understanding of the direct effect of atmospheric CO2 and weather on coral - but demonstrates the micro oscillations of weather and other environmental factors
9) Scientific studies of calcification rates for the past 237 years indicates that the present decline in coral growth can be viewed as a return to a slower and more 'normal' rate of growth as experienced in the past
10) Coral reefs have been compared to tropical rain forests for their biodiversity. It has also been proven that reefs, like the forests, are great depositors of atmospheric CO2, and therefore deserve the same considerations for conservation and expansion.
Here is a graph demonstrating CO2 exchanges on the reef
Man, climate, & the reefs:
1) Man's ancestors appeared at least 2 million years ago
2) There has been no perceptible change in man's physiology in 40,000 years - so why didn't agriculture and civilization begin 40,000 years ago?
3) The Earth's climate was very erratic (during this 40,000 year period) up to 10,000 years ago - when the last ice age ended
4) After that last ice age (10,000 years ago) the weather went from erratic (which is normal) to stable (which is abnormal) and helped foster the birth of civilization through predictable climate (regular seasonal cycles of temperature change and wet/dry periods) best described as a 'steady-state environment' weather period.
5) This abnormal 'Steady-State' climate has made possible the progression of agriculture, which resulted in stable human societies and a greatly accelerated growth in the human population.
6) Over the past 50 years man's effect on coral reefs have been very detrimental, directly and indirectly - due to the huge growth in man's population and technology
7) We have the knowledge to reverse the negative impact we have made on reefs and oceans
8) We have the knowledge to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by reduction of emissions and enhancement of biological fixing (capture) methods
9) It is just a matter of time and the Earth's 'hot-cold' and 'wet-dry' macro climatic cycles will take us out of the present 'steady-state' environment we have experienced over this short geological period of the past 10,000 years
Biological consequences of earth climatic change:
1) The 'Boom and Bust' phenomena of different biological orders through geological periods (macro change) - the age of fishes, age of amphibians, age of reptiles - resulting in some huge and widespread extinctions (with some carry over remnants)
2) And within each 'Order' (within a geological period) there is the 'Boom and Bust' phenomena as well (micro change) - experienced when small changes in localized and/or global weather patterns produced changes in food sources, predication, and disease. This causes populations of individual species to expand or contract, and that has a ripple effect in an ecosystem called 'tropic cascading' - often resulting in some species extinction as well as changes in the food chain.
This table shows earth's geological time scale
What we know about the relationships between the ocean and carbon:
1) Most of the Earth's carbon (including CO2) is found in the oceans - the 'carbon bank'
2) It has been that way for millions of years with contributions of both organic and inorganic sources in the oceans, from the atmosphere (gas exchanges), and from fluvial sources (rivers and other erosion methods on land of terrestrial organic and inorganic materials)
3) At present the carbon cycle in the ocean effectively deposits into the deep ocean sediments enough CO2 taken from the atmosphere to be labelled a CO2 'sink' (tectonic movement and undersea volcanic action also release CO2 to the atmosphere in varying amounts so that there has been periods during the earth's geological time scale when the ocean released more CO2 into the atmosphere then it removed)
4) The oceans remove 30-50% of the fossil fuel carbons found in the atmosphere
5) The removal and storage of atmospheric CO2 by the oceans is done by biological means involving the total oceanic food chain (waste materials and dead organisms accumulating on the ocean floor) and the structural recruitment by calcifying organisms (coral reefs and limestone beds built up by corals, coraline algae, and other plants)
6) Presently the ocean releases less CO2 back into the atmosphere then it removes during the 'carbon cycle' because it 'locks' a percentage of the CO2 into limestone and ocean floor sediments.
7) How much is 'locked' into sediments and limestone depends on many factors and is very complex, but at present it is generally agreed that the ocean is acting as a CO2 sink.
8) The CO2 rises to the ocean's surface for atmospheric exchange through geochemical methods when there is; a) tectonic and volcanic activity, b) upwellings of deep ocean currents bring dissolved sediments to the surface, c) limestone erosion
9) Under normal circumstance most CO2 released from the ocean surface is through organic activity of marine organisms (metabolic activity)
Here is a graph on the global carbon cycle showing the net gain for the oceans
1) Our present beneficial 'steady-state' climate has been dependent on two great influences; a) the sun (thermal influence and photosynthesis), and b) the oceans (the great 'Oceanic Conveyor Belt' has been identified as the ocean's special climate stabilizer for the planet)
2) The health of the sun - we have no control over that, but we do have a great impact on the oceans.
3) If the ocean's health is adversely effected by anything in the tightly interrelated influences of biological factors (over-fishing, reef destruction, and pollution) or physiological factors (surface chemistry, ocean surface currents, increased atmospheric temperatures) there will be changes in the 'Oceanic Conveyor Belt' (the 'Great Climate Stabilizer') that can trigger even greater changes in global weather.
3) The health of the oceans are dependent on their life webs - and the health of the coral reef is very important to the ocean's life webs.
4) As previously stated - the coral reefs are great 'depositors' of CO2, much in the same way that the rain forests are great 'depositors' of CO2 in the terrestrial environment
5) The benefits gained by reforestation of the land areas of the world to reduce atmospheric CO2 can be matched by restoration and expansion of the ocean's gardens - the coral reefs.
6) Restoration and expansion of coral reefs are accomplished by improving water quality and the planting of cultivated corals
Future global climatic change can not be avoided. And we can not predict the timing of those changes. We can only deal with our own direct influences on global weather - such as the reduction of atmospheric CO2 and the improvement of the ocean's health. Cultivating corals and using them for the restoration and expansion of tropical reefs would be very important for both of those goals. Some say we can avoid the cataclysmic changes that have effected the planet during the geological past through technology. If that statement is addressing the possibility of deflecting or destroying the space objects that collide with Earth - we might be able to deal with that. But there is nothing we can do about future drastic changes brought about by the periodic releases of huge quantities of methane gas from the ocean floor. That geophysical phenomena is considered to be one of the major reasons for mass extinctions and abrupt climate change in the past. There is also the periodic magnetic pole shifts to consider.
Future technology will be more important to our adaptation to climatic change - not its prevention. All the more reason to go to Mars and the other planets - it will help us develop those survival technologies.
As to our present efforts to save our seas and the coral reefs. It is all about quality of life in the present and our immediate future - and the fact that there are no guarantees about the life spans of species, or climate cycles, or anything! If great change and possible degradation of the planet is inevitable, then we have to make intelligent choices today as to what we can do to enjoy the highest quality of existence for the planet and ourselves - while we can.