Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Endangered Cloud Forests, Clouds and Climate Change


Demagogues trumpet ecosystems are collapsing and allude to scientific assessments. For example, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest as “critically endangered”. So, what constitutes “critically endangered”? The Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest story is telling.


The Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest is located on the 5.6 square mile Lord Howe Island situated between Australia and New Zealand. For perspective, 54 islands could fit within the limits of New York City. Still, Lord Howe Island is an evolutionary marvel. Forty-four percent (105) of the island’s plant species, and 37% of all its invertebrate species are found nowhere else in the world. Additionally, the island supports the most poleward of all coral reefs. So, in 1982 Lord Howe Island was designated a World Heritage Area.

The “critically endangered” cloud forest is restricted to just 0.1 square miles atop the island’s extinct volcanic mountain. Researchers worried the cloud forest’s unique collection of species would have nowhere to go if global warming disrupted its environment.  Accordingly, the IUCN designates ecosystems with such limited distributions as critically endangered. Although confined to a small micro-climate, its species are very resilient to changing climates. Hundreds of thousands of years were required for the island’s unique species to evolve from their ancestors (after arriving from Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia). During that time, they survived alternating ice ages and warm inter-glacials.


Unchanging geography permits the existence of cloud forests. Most are found in the tropics where they experience 78-102 inches of annual rainfall. (For perspective, “rainy” Seattle averages just 38 inches of rain.) The photo below also illustrates why cloud forests are typically confined to zones within 220 miles of the coast, and above elevations of 1600 feet. Sea breezes are laden with water vapor. As they rise and cool, vapor condenses to form clouds. Rising air saturated with water vapor can cool enough to create clouds by rising over 20-story buildings. The Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest exists around 2800 feet.


As human populations increased, land cultivation threatened cloud forests across the globe. However, due to low human populations and steep slopes the Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest was spared excessive losses. However, as with Hawaii and all of earth’s unique island species, introduced species are the greatest extinction threat. Introduced cats, pigs and goats were damaging Lord Howe Island since the mid 1800s. Having recognized this threat, humans began programs to preserve the island’s species. Pigs and goats were eradicated by the 1980s, but the island’s plague of introduced rats remain problematic. To date, an introduced owl and poison bait projects struggle to limit rat populations.


In addition to rats, scientists suggested the cloud forest was threatened by a “loss of moisture from declining rainfall and cloud cover due to climate change.” However, scientists admitted their estimates were “based on limited information” and the real level of threat to the cloud forest could range from “Least Concern” to “Collapsed.” “Least Concern” may prove to be the correct designation as long-term global precipitation data show a slight increasing trend in the region.


Nonetheless, to support their catastrophic claims their study ill-advisedly alluded to a debunked 1999 study that claimed CO2-caused warming was drying the Costa Rican cloud forests by raising cloud elevations, and allegedly drove the Golden Toad to extinction. That climate attribution was absolutely wrong. The cloud forest amphibians were killed by an introduced chytrid fungus, spread by pet trade collectors, researchers and animals like introduced bullfrogs. Remarkably, the proposed worrisome warming and drying actually benefitted amphibians by killing the fungus. Similarly, Lord Howe’s cloud forest vegetation is potentially threatened by introduced fungi (Phytophthora), spread by tourists. So, steps are being taken to encourage “social distancing” near vulnerable native plants.


As with Costa Rica, Lord Howe Island endures periodic dryness associated with El Nino cycles. The island’s lowest recorded rainfall happened during the 1997 El Nino. Unfortunately, to blame climate change for a short-term drying trend, researchers ignored the fact that the second lowest rainfall happened in cool 1888 and differed from the “record low” 1997 rainfall by a scant 0.3 inches. Furthermore, research has determined cloud cover shifts across the Pacific due to El Nino cycles and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and regional tree rings reveal 55-year dry cycles amplified by El Nino.


Ecologists know surviving cloud forest species had to adapt to natural cycles of periodic dryness they endured over millennia, and indeed they did. One example is the Kentia Palm. Native only to Lord Howe Island, it’s a globally popular indoor house plant, in part, because it withstands long periods of neglect and irregular watering. So, take heart. The Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest will not collapse with a changing climate. And although introduced species certainly are a threat, it is something people are rectifying.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Betting Against Collapsing Ocean Ecosystems

Betting Against Collapsing Ocean Ecosystems

In summer 2020, the media hyped various versions of “Tropical Oceans Headed For Collapse Within The Next 10 Years”. One outlet warned, “Global warming is about to tear big holes into Earth’s delicate web of life.” A single peer-reviewed paper instigated those apocalyptic headlines predicting CO2­­-caused warming would ramp-up species extinctions starting in tropical oceans. In contrast, I’ll confidently bet any climate scientist $1000 that no such thing will happen.


Sadly, some researchers hope to enhance their fame and fortune by offering dooms day scenarios. Profit hungry media and scientific journals with “if it bleeds, it leads” business models, abet that fear mongering.  Scientists also get consumed by their own fearful visions. Gaia scientist James Lovelock predicted by 2100 global warming would make the tropics uninhabitable and "billions of us will die” with a few breeding pairs surviving in the Arctic. (To his credit, Lovelock recanted his alarmism) Stanford’s Dr. Paul Ehrlich falsely predicted “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” in the 1970s. So, we must ask, are collapsing oceans a real concern, or just another scientist from the “chicken little school of science” crying wolf?  We’ll know by 2030.


Fortunately, good scientists are urging “ocean optimism”, promoting lessons learned from our mistakes and successes. Overfishing and overhunting is definitely a significant threat to ocean ecosystems. Once hunted to near extinction for their oils, whales and sea lions are now rapidly recovering. Thanks to wise hunting regulations, Hawaii’s endangered humpback whales grew from just 800 individuals in 1979 to 10,000 by 2005. Turtle nests in Florida increased from “62 in 1979 to 37,341 in 2015” as North and South Atlantic green turtle populations increased by 2,000% and 3,000% respectively.


Likewise, fish populations are recovering with better fisheries management. Off the USA’s west coast,  uncontrolled bottom trawling extirpated several species. So, fishery managers implemented a complete fishing ban, as scientists expected recovery to take 100+ years. However within just 10 years a dramatic improvement prompted both environmentalists and regulators to agree to reopen much of the coast to trawling. Critical photosynthesizing algae, diatoms, rapidly flourish when upwelling brings nutrient rich, high CO2 deep waters back to sunlit surfaces. Diatom blooms stimulate zooplankton abundance which feeds fast-growing bait fish, like anchovies and sardines, thus sustaining a food web from tuna to whales. And more good news, since the 1850s warming has spurred dramatic increases in upwelling and marine life.


Michael Mann and Kevin Trenberth rule the roost within the chicken little school of science. They recently co-authored a “scary” paper titled Record-Setting Ocean Warmth Continued in 2019. Using the energy metric Zetta (1021) Joules, an incomprehensible foreign language for the public, they estimated 2019 warmed by 25 Zetta Joules. That converts to a not so scary  0.016 °F (0.009 °C) increase. Five thousand years ago, marine organisms thrived in waters that were about 2.7°F to 3.6°F warmer than today. At their alleged “record setting” warming pace, it would take four to six hundred years to reach those earlier temperatures.


To be fair, it’s extremely difficult to measure the oceans’ heat content. To improve our knowledge, a world-wide array of floating buoys, ARGO, was established by 2003 to measure temperature down to 2000 meters and periodically transmits data via satellite. We now realize ocean currents are far more complex than once thought, and due to constant changes in ocean heat transport, such as caused by El Niño, the ocean heat content requires distinguishing warmer temperatures due to heat redistribution versus warming from the sun or CO2. Unpredicted by climate models, ocean heat transport caused 90% of recently increased ocean heat to accumulate in a narrow band of the Southern Ocean outside the tropics, while the rate of northern hemisphere warming is decreasing.  However, ARGO data also reported cooler temperatures than previous less reliable ship measurements. Oddly, 0.216°F is added to the ARGO data. Such a large adjustment makes the estimated increase of 0.016°F/year highly uncertain.


There’s a further complication. Outside the tropics, the earth loses more heat than the sun or a greenhouse effect  can provide. It’s the transport of heat towards the poles that keeps temperatures outside the tropics much warmer than they would be otherwise.  In ancient climates of the Cretaceous and early Eocene, polar regions were far warmer than today with crocodiles in Greenland and lush coastal vegetation in Antarctica. Such “equable climates” are explained by changing continental configurations and stronger ocean currents carrying more heat from the tropics towards the poles. Yet, the tropics did not cool. Exported tropical heat was compensated by reduced cloud cover, which increased solar heating. Ocean oscillations that increase ocean heat transport today most likely explain the Arctic warming of the 1930s.  

Similarly, recent poleward, ice-melting heat transport, with reduced cloud cover that increases solar heating may explain much of our recent climate change. By 2030, we should know.