Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ravaged Reefs Bounce Back

In a new study of coral reefs off the Pacific coast of Panama, a team of scientists has discovered something shocking: those seemingly thriving, permanent reefs have undergone widespread devastation in the past. Even more shocking was the realization that, despite this natural destruction of coral reefs, the reefs bounced back—after laying dormant for 2,500 years. We have been told that the oh so sensitive coral reefs of the world are all going to die if the world's temperature rises due to that horrible man-made scourge, global warming. Yet it seems that nature has been happily wiping out and re-establishing reefs across all the oceans of the world since before the rise of human civilization. Once again the warmists' scare tactics founder on the reefs of actual science.

A team led by Richard Aronson, Professor and Biological Sciences Department Head at Florida Institute of Technology, studied coral reefs off the Pacific coast of Panama. The reefs in this part of the ocean are relatively untouched by the bleaching seen in other ocean locations, thriving and home to hundreds of ocean species. Just as land based researchers use tree rings to establish cronology and climatic conditions, the FIT team took core samples from a number of reefs to determine their lifespan and past health.

“We jammed 17-foot-long irrigation pipes down into the reef and pulled out a history, a section of the reef, that told us what the ups and downs of the reef had been,” Aronson said in an interview heard on America's National Public Radio and other popular news outlets. The data they gathered, along with data from other studies from around the world, were reported in a paper in Science entitled “ENSO Drove 2500-Year Collapse of Eastern Pacific Coral Reefs.” Here is the paper's abstract:
    Cores of coral reef frameworks along an upwelling gradient in Panamá show that reef ecosystems in the tropical eastern Pacific collapsed for 2500 years, representing as much as 40% of their history, beginning about 4000 years ago. The principal cause of this millennial-scale hiatus in reef growth was increased variability of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and its coupling with the Intertropical Convergence Zone. The hiatus was a Pacific-wide phenomenon with an underlying climatology similar to probable scenarios for the next century. Global climate change is probably driving eastern Pacific reefs toward another regional collapse.

Ignoring for the moment the gratuitous last sentence (an obvious allusion to anthropogenic global warming) we should pause for a moment and consider what this means. The first point of interest is that nature, acting without human interference, has caused long periods of reef damage, lasting for extended periods. Aronson and his colleagues, including researchers from an array of institutions, believe that natural climate change was responsible for killing off the coral. Yet nowadays any reef that shows signs of ill health is automatically a victim of human activity. Also note, this was not some small, localized disaster either.

The second point is that this phenomenon was global, or at least “Pacific-wide,” which is near global enough. This period came a thousand years after the Holocene Climate Optimum, a period of global warming that scientists think may have led to ice free summers in the Arctic—something that now fills eco-alarmists, Hollywood airheads and media news manikins with dread. Here is more proof that climate is always changing.

Third and lastly, the reefs that had been so laid to waste have bounced back to abundant, glorious life. The standard line from the green lobby is that when the world's fragile reefs die they will never (ever!) recover. Humanity's failed stewardship of nature will be written in dead coral reefs and lifeless oceans. I guess that has been proven conclusively wrong.

To be fair, most greens have extraordinarily short attention spans, witness the agitation they exhibit when temperatures turn hot or the weather nasty. Every summer high is the hottest temperature ever, every new hurricane is the most powerful humanity has seen, every outbreak of tornadoes unprecedented. This is because they have no sense of time, even on a decade to decade scale. Nature, not being limited by faulty human memories or even ephemeral human lifespans, continues to vary on time scales of decades, centuries, millennia and longer.

It is unsurprising that reefs have come and gone, with nature the proximate cause for the waxing and waning. Instead of running to their keyboards and microphones, the chattering simpletons of the news media would be better off to spend a few moments doing research. Now that everyone has Internet access there is no excuse for such uninformed reporting on maters scientific. Reefs die, reefs will continue to die, and reefs will bounce back as environmental conditions change.

Conceptual model of reef collapse.

But what of cries that AGW induced change, unlike “natural” change, is too sudden for nature to deal with? Or that recovery, if any, will be slow and laborious? “It seemed to be fairly instantaneous,” Aronson said of the gap his team discovered in the Panama reef's history. “About 2,000 years ago or so, some corals that are not the main reef-building corals started up, and then maybe 500 years later, around 1,500 years ago, the main coral started growing again very rapidly.” I guess nature didn't read all those news releases from Greenpeace and the IPCC.

Do human activities have an impact on the world's reefs? Undoubtedly. But it is not an irreversible, unprecedented or even abnormal impact in most cases. So despite the obligatory verbal genuflecting by study's authors, paying obeisance to the gods of Political Correctness, there is precocious little difference between natural and man-made change—in either its form or impact. So remember the next time some ecological blatherskite starts going on about the death of the ocean reefs—the reefs, like Earth itself, are more resilient than we know.


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