Sunday, July 06, 2014

Lagest Marine Preserve on Earth

You no doubt heard about the proposed vast expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument that President Obama announced in 2014. It would enlarge the original area created in 2009 by George W. Bush from 87,000 sq miles to 782,000 square miles of federal waters.

This would ban fishing, energy exploration and other destructive activities in this vast area of one of the most rich and sensitive marine ecosystems.

Good idea?

Of course!

Politically complicated?

Very much so.

The Washington Post reports, "Obama announced .... he intended to expand federal protections around seven islands and atolls in the central Pacific Ocean, many environmentalists hailed the move as an important step for conservation. But the main group overseeing fishing operators in Hawaii and three U.S. territories in the region declared Monday it opposes the proposal, on the grounds that it would hurt the U.S. fishing industry."

Congress has already begun making noise about prohibiting Obama from executing this idea. Obama is using the 1906 Antiquities Act which has been used by Democratic and republican Presidents to create  national "monuments" such as this.

The fundamental problem is that commercial interests are almost always on the opposite side of issues from environmentalists and conservationists. And, the former is usually a Republican issue while Democrats tend to be more supportive of environmentalism.

That was not always the case since Teddy Roosevelt was THE most aggressive in building national parks (even while he was also a passionate hunter). President Bush was also able to make a case for the original establishment of the Pacific Island Monument since he had the backing of both Democrats and also Republicans in Congress.

That has radically changed with the rise of the Tea Party movement in the Republican party and the "Liberty Movement" which is a Libertarian/Republican wing of the party and believes in less government regulation.

White House Council on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Keri Fulton was quoted as saying "...the Administration will seek out the input of commercial and recreational fishermen, scientists, conservation experts, elected officials, and other stakeholders."

Stay tuned. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Is it all over except the collapse?

Life on Earth (capitalized) as we know it is coming to an end and there is now nothing we can do to reverse the effects of overpopulation, overuse of fossil fuels, massive CO2 emissions, deforestation, the filing of marshes, destruction of wetlands, overbuilding, and runoff from farms and factories. The latest American climate change report issues in May of 2014 notes that many of the largest US airports will be flooded, Miami is already seeing sea level bubble up from the sewer system flooding parts of south Florida, drought in some parts and more serious rain in North East, and devastating forest fires are in our future.

All symbolic gestures notwithstanding the ship of Earth is set on an irreversible course.

The ice caps and glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, sea temperatures are hotter, ocean acidity rising dramatically, and conditions for much more severe weather phenomena including floods, droughts, and hurricanes becoming more favorable every year.

Faced with this gloomy scenario the best thing to do is find a nice farm somewhere green and remote, become self sufficient, go off the grid, raise a family with the least dependence on the modern services and products, live off the land, and wait for the collapse.

Surprisingly these scenarios come from the thinking of Paul Kingsnorth a long active and passionate environmentalist from England. Daniel Smith wrote an interesting profile of the evolution of Kingsnorth’s thinking in the New York Times Magazine and it has caused quite a stir. He is a former deputy-editor of The Ecologist and a co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project.  “The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.” Mostly Dark Mountain adherents no longer believe that the current path of humanity is viable, acceptable, and sustainable.

The also observe that hybrid cars, wind energy, LED lights, not using paper, “saving trees”, and recycling are all silly. The scale of the problem is so disproportionately huge compared to these baby steps we’ve taken that there is no discernible change in the downward trend line. And, most of the Prius drivers also take extended vacations on jet planes to Africa, Latin America, and Asia. I know some passionate environmentalists who climb Mt Kilimanjaro and hit the Galapagos real hard with all the ecological damage that involves.

Giving up is just not the way of the modern, rational, and scientifically empowered. It certainly runs totally counter to everything that academics believe since the university is by definition the place where solutions are found. And let’s face it it’s just plain un-American to give up!

Most surprising where the responses to Smith’s article as compiled by the New York Times.

Eight percent argued that people have been predicting the end of the world for a long time and we will be fine. Another eight percent believe that population control is the answer. Eleven percent believe humans will become extinct but Earth will go on without us. A significant 27% think Kingsnorth is “irresponsible” and argue that we can still save the planet. But a whopping 46% agree with Kingsnorth – we humans are doomed.

I recently had extended conversations with several world respected scientists who to my surprise and dismay shared most of the pessimism about how much progress we have made. One problem is that we cannot conserve and restore ecosystems unless the underlying conditions that threaten them are benign. Think Tigers, Rhino’s and Elephants. In spite of the fact that we seem them shrinking in numbers every day we have made no progress in slowing the encroachment on their habitat nor have we presented a robust and credible deterrent to the poachers who don’t fear the limp enforcement that has been put in place. In those cases we are too weak and too cowardly to do what would need to be done to stop poaching in its tracks.

We see coral reefs wilting and bleaching from pollution, runoff from construction on shore, warming oceans, divers, fishermen and souvenir hunters. Meek limitations on all those activities have no measurable effect. In response we try to grow coral in laboratories to reseed reefs. BUT, the conditions that require human intervention in the first place are still present so how do expect the new reef “seedlings” to survive?

 It seems to me that the biggest problem we face is our faith in science as the solution when in fact politics and policy would in almost every case stop and reverse the destructive trends. We can research the condition of coral reefs to learn more about them and find strategies for perhaps strengthening the reef and make it more resistant to the assault. However if we had bold and successful public policies enacted and enforced with vigor we could slow, stop and reverse all those bad practices that have gotten us into this terrible mess.

I’m going to write Mr. Kingsnorth and encourage him to go to graduate school, get a degree in public policy. I’m pretty sure that the battle to save planet Earth can be found in what we political scientists have to offer. It’s not too late.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Coastal Policy Internet Class Summer 2014

Yes kids it's time again to dip the toe into the water, check out the reefs, beaches, hurricane and tsunami damage, climate change, rising oceans and the WONDERFUL importance of coastal areas and beaches to our lives and economies.

This is a great class on an issue of increasing urgency as oceans rise and even the US Department of defense has issued a strategic warning about the impact of rising sea levels on national security worldwide.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Shocking news about mass extinctions and the oceans

First of all you need to remember your history of the Earth.

"The end-Permian mass extinction, which occurred 252 million years ago, was the biggest die-off in the planet's history, and the largest of the five mass extinctions seen in the fossil record. The cataclysm killed as much as 95 percent of all species on Earth." Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor.

Scientists have just discovered some amazing information about the consequences of this mass extinction on the oceans. "... global oceans in the extinction's aftermath were a bit like a ship manned by a skeleton crew — all stations were operational, but manned by relatively few species." Moreover, "At the level of presence or absence of modes of life, there was virtually no change in the long run."

William Foster, a paleontologist at Plymouth University in England and his colleague Richard Twitchett outlined their findings in the journal Nature Geoscience. "Functional diversity of marine ecosystems after the Late Permian mass extinction event." 23 February 2014, (see Abstract of the article below)

These are very important finding. They provides a window into the challenges the oceans currently face. The research on previous climate change and its effects on the oceans is relevant because past climate change may provide vital clues about the stressors affecting our ocean ecosystems. Moreover, this research reminds us that even without any humans natural factors including catastrophic impacts on planet Earth have caused great devastation.


The Late Permian mass extinction event about 252 million years ago was the most severe biotic crisis of the past 500 million years and occurred during an episode of global warming. The loss of around two-thirds of marine genera is thought to have had substantial ecological effects, but the overall impacts on the functioning of marine ecosystems and the pattern of marine recovery are uncertain. Here we analyse the fossil occurrences of all known benthic marine invertebrate genera from the Permian and Triassic periods, and assign each to a functional group based on their inferred lifestyle. We show that despite the selective extinction of 62–74% of these genera, all but one functional group persisted through the crisis, indicating that there was no significant loss of functional diversity at the global scale. In addition, only one new mode of life originated in the extinction aftermath. We suggest that Early Triassic marine ecosystems were not as ecologically depauperate as widely assumed. Functional diversity was, however, reduced in particular regions and habitats, such as tropical reefs; at these smaller scales, recovery varied spatially and temporally, probably driven by migration of surviving groups. We find that marine ecosystems did not return to their pre-extinction state, and by the Middle Triassic greater functional evenness is recorded, resulting from the radiation of previously subordinate groups such as motile, epifaunal grazers.  Courtesy Nature Geoscience

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fixing Louisiana?

I have spent some time in southern Louisiana getting briefings from the researchers and government agencies involved in wetland restoration. Here is an good set of  comments from the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Louisiana has lost 25% of its coastal land area since 1930 and continues to lose land at an alarming rate – one football field every hour, on average. Man-made levees along the Mississippi River cut off many small distributaries, like Mardi Gras Pass, from the wetlands in the floodplain of the river and have contributed to this massive wetland loss. Our team here at EDF works with partner organizations, including the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, as part of the Mississippi River Delta Resotration Coalition, which has a vision of reconnecting the Mississippi River to its delta to help protect people, wildlife and jobs in coastal Louisiana."

I must add that the evidence on whether this wetland restoration is a good idea or comes with serious problems is still out. I was surprised to hear that the scientific community is quite divided on what contaminated Mississippi water will do to the fragile wetlands to which water is going to be massively diverted.

We need to remember that the river is filled with nitrogen from nonpoint source pollution upriver. Farm states leach huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer into the river which ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and creates the massive "dead zone" where oxygen is so scarce the fish (where there are any left) actually jump out of the water to catch some air! The river is also filled with pil from spills, and a host of other chemicals.

I would ask the folks diverting water from the Mighty river "Would you drink a glass of water from the river?" The answer would be no so why do they think all the wetlands life they are watering with the river waters would benefit from having that wash into their habitat?

This is a great topic for a research project.

Here is another good piece of information from Tulane University that you need to download and read. "The Use of Mississippi River Sediment for Restoration Projects in Louisiana" by
Russ J. Joffrion, P.E 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

BREAKING news! Sperm Whale dies from plastic - retweet

Whale courtesy Wiki commons. 
For students of coastal and marine debris this is another very important case study of the tremendous damage being done by human activity and products.This is a retweet from SumofUs.  

"A sperm whale that washed up in Spain died after swallowing almost 60 different pieces of plastic dumped by the greenhouses that supply Tesco, Carrefour and Aldi. This 4.5 tonne whale was defeated by 17 kg of plastic waste, including two dozen sections of the transparent sheeting used to cover industrial greenhouses. 

There’s no excuse for these giant supermarkets' failure to ensure their suppliers recycle and safely dispose of their deadly waste — but as long as they’re given a free pass, plastic will continue to swamp our oceans each year, and more whales will die. Tell Tesco, Carrefour and Aldi and to make sure their greenhouses recycle or safely dispose of their waste. 

 Only about 1,000 sperm whales are left in the Mediterranean, and they feed near waters flooded by the greenhouse industry. Acre after acre of farmland in southern Spain is covered in reams of plastic sheeting to produce the perfect growing conditions for year round fruit and vegetables. Due to poor waste disposal, this plastic ends up floating in the Mediterranean. Now these whales are under threat from swallowing huge quantities of non-degradable plastics.

If we lose the whales, we disable an entire ecosystem — and all because grocery stores are too lazy to monitor their suppliers. Our supermarket chains could easily ensure that plastics used to grow our fruit and vegetables are disposed of correctly and recycled. But so far, they are walking away and counting their profits -- and as they do, our oceans and seas are dying.

 Let’s not let another whale die from too much plastic. Tell Tesco, Aldi and Carrefour to clean up their supply chains and stop their suppliers from dumping toxic plastics in to the Mediterranean. This isn’t the first time we’ve taken on the big supermarket chains. We came together to take on the might of Tesco in the UK when it was electronically tagging its workers, and we won a landmark campaign in the US demanding that Trader Joe’s help farm workers get paid a fair wage. Now we need to come together and take on Tesco, Aldi and Carrefour demand they help save the whales.

The question is always how much regulation it would take and by how many nations to start attacking this problem which has horrific health implications not just for marine life but for human as well.

"However, concerns about usage and disposal are diverse and include accumulation of waste in landfills and in natural habitats, physical problems for wildlife resulting from ingestion or entanglement in plastic, the leaching of chemicals from plastic products and the potential for plastics to transfer chemicals to wildlife and humans"  See "Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends" The Royal Society.Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 July 2009 vol. 364 no. 1526 2153-2166 Richard C. Thompson1,*, Charles J. Moore2, Frederick S. vom Saal3 and Shanna H. Swan4


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Superstorm Sandy Update

NBC news anchor Brian Williams was the guest of Meet the Press on October 27, 2013. Inhis report on conditions a year after Superstorm Sandy he raises several very important issues for students of coastal policy.

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First, he reviewed the level of destruction which we saw during the storm but which we may have forgotten already. Williams visited some beachfront areas where he had lived which were still in shambles

Second, Williams commented about "community" which is critically important because coastal neighborhoods are not "just" summer places and homes by the sea. These are sociological entities. There are social fibers that bind people to their community. There are cemeteries where ancestors are buried and generations of families have their roots. There are economic structures and institutions that empoly people and generated taxes.

Third, his comments about the future are of critical importance for students of coastal zone management.

For example, the response by property owners is largely to rebuild the beaches, waterfront and the homes JUST AS THEY where before the disaster. whether this is realistic or not is not clear but there has been significant push back against simply recreating the exiting land and seascape.

The second is the response of government to the disaster. This comes in two portions.
The first is that FEMA and other finding for disaster recovery has been too slow to come. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, much applauded after the disaster for his quick response and for chumming with Barack Obama to gain state/federal cooperation, has been criticized for not managing the recovery quickly enough. 
The second is a strong criticism by many beachfront property owners that government projects are placing barriers between them and the ocean view. These, in the form of high sand dunes and in some cases steel barriers, are widely opposed by folks whose view of the expansive beach and the Atlantic ocean is obstructed thus harming property values. 
Finally, Williams mentions the "retreat" option. This has been actually enacted in countries where property rights are much weaker than in the United States such as Venezuela as well as many European countries. Moving properties away from the storm surge and damaging winds further inland and to higher ground is, of course one "natural" option which returns shorelines to nature.

Hurricane Katrina was a shock and a huge challenge to people and to governments at all levels. Superstorm Sandy was a surprise. Even the Hurricane forecasting systems of the United States made a horrible mistake in not keeping the term "hurricane" when Sandy's strength subsided from hurricane force winds. That decision alone is blamed for people and governments not taking sandy as seriously as they should have.

So there are numerous important coastal policy lessons to be learned from Sandy a year after. Perhaps these lessons can help prepare better for future climate change challenges in the coastal zone.