Corals, Climate, and Carbon Dioxide
Research report by Brian R. Mommsen
For the INOKI FOUNDATION - Palau
There is an old saying; "The whole is greater then 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 complety explain their interactions, or understand the total complexity of those systems. For this reason we can not have complete faith in the ability of any computer models to predict future behaviour of any natural system - especially one as great as the whole Earth!
The Earth's climatic system is very complex, and scientists still have trouble getting computer models that can predict even minor climate changes for more then just a few days. Which means that there is the opportunity for corruption of model results on longer periods of global weather that could possibly benefit the bias of the testers and 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'.
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 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.
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 recognise 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-organising / self-adjusting, - from the micro (atoms) to the macro (galaxies). Recognising 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 biological consequences of those deadly events, the climate went through many wild swings that effected life on earth for tens to millions of years.
REVIEWING THE FACTS
The coral reefs:
10)Coral reefs have been compared to tropical rain forests for their bio-diversity. 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:
2) There has been no perceptible change in man's physiology in 40,000 years - so why didn't agriculture and civilisation begin 40,000 years ago?
3) The Earth's climate was very erratic (during this period) up to 10,000 years ago - when the last ice age ended
Biological consequences of earth climatic change:
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'
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 stabiliser 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 Stabiliser') that can trigger even greater changes in global weather.
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.