Category Archives: Enviroment

Climate Change, El Niño Prolong Coral Die-off

The news earlier this month of a record low Arctic sea ice in January, combined with the hottest January on record and four separate studies corroborating accelerating sea level rise is only some of the recent news pointing to a rapidly changing global climate.

In a press statement released today by the American Geophysical Union, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that rising ocean temperatures from global warming and the strong El Niño will likely extend the ongoing coral bleaching event, already the longest on record, well into 2017.

Scientists released their findings this week at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in New Orleans. Researchers will give an oral presentation of their work this Friday. You can see presentations abstracts on the AGU website.

Following is the full AGU press release:

Coral die-off

– Global warming and the intense El Niño now underway are prolonging the longest global coral die-off on record, according to NOAA scientists monitoring and forecasting the loss of corals from disease and heat stress due to record ocean temperatures. The global coral bleaching event that started in 2014 could extend well into 2017, researchers report at the Oceans Sciences Meeting here this week.

Coral bleaching happens when corals are stressed by conditions such as high temperatures. The bleaching, or whitening, occurs when the corals expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues. Without the algae, corals lose a significant source of food and are more vulnerable to disease. In a severe bleaching event, large swaths of reef-building corals die. This causes reefs to erode, destroying fish habitat and exposing previously protected shorelines to the destructive force of ocean waves.

Warmer ocean temperatures caused by El Niños and global warming can lead to coral bleaching.  The first mass bleaching occurred during the 1982-83 El Niño. A global bleaching event was then confirmed in 1998 during a strong El Niño that was followed by a very strong La Niña, which brings warmer waters to places like Palau and Micronesia. A second global bleaching event occurred in 2010, during a less powerful El Niño.

 Scientists first observed the current global coral bleaching event beginning in mid-2014 when bleaching began in the western Pacific Ocean. In October 2015, as the current El Niño was still strengthening, NOAA scientists declared the third global bleaching event on record was underway.

New research finds that this bleaching event has persisted for 20 months and could reach into 2017, said Mark Eakin, a biological oceanographer at NOAA in College Park, Maryland, and coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch.

 “This time we’re in the longest coral bleaching event,” Eakin said. “We’re maybe looking at a 2- to 2-1/2-year-long event. Some areas have already seen bleaching two years in a row.”

Eakin and his colleagues will be presenting the latest update and outlook for the global bleaching event Friday at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting co-sponsored by the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, The Oceanography Society and the American Geophysical Union.

The length of the event means corals in some parts of the world have no time to recover before they are hit by another bleaching event, Eakin said. The current global bleaching event is hammering some reefs repeatedly. Reefs bleached in 2015 in the Caribbean and Florida Keys, for instance, have just started to recover, but may start bleaching all over again as early as July, according to Eakin. In the Pacific, reports are just coming in that corals in Fiji’s nearshore waters are bleaching with lots of dead coral.

“This is now two years in a row for Fiji and it’s looking like 2016 may be worse than 2015,” Eakin said.

 The rate of return of bleaching events has been faster than some reefs can recover, he noted. In 1998 in Southeast Asia, for example, there was a severe bleaching event, followed by twelve years of recovery that allowed some of the more rapid-growing, branching corals to grow back. However, the slower-growing corals that build the backbone of reefs did not recover. In 2010, the same area was hit again by a global bleaching event, killing off newly-grown branching corals and many of the surviving massive corals. These reefs may see bleaching again later this year, Eakin said.

 “That was only six years ago,” he said. “We’re seeing global bleaching again now. The frequency of mass bleaching events are going up because of global warming. We are hitting the corals, then we are hitting them again, and then again.”

Featured image credit: Eco Cafe’ Phuket, courtesy flickr

The Irony and Tragedy of Failed City Infrastructure Laid Bare by Poor Decision-Making

Old pipes, faded records and a devil-may-care decision process

When are you gonna fix it? And I mean fix it right,” asks Hattie Collins of city and state government officials of Flint Michigan in a recent NPR report by Ari Shapiro

The task of fixing corroded water pipes after officials allowed the pipes to poison the city water supply becomes even more unsettling when experts set about measuring the scale of the problem.

In his report, Shapiro spoke with Marty Kaufman, a professor of Earth and resource science at the University of Michigan. Charged with the task of actually getting a grasp of the scale of the problem, Kaufman requested records from the city to show which homes of the 100,000 Flint residents had lead pipes, “as-builts” as they’re called in the construction and civil engineering industry.

What Kaufman was shown was a file drawer filled with 45,000 index cards, each written in pencil, noting which homes had lead or copper feeder pipes.

One of the big problems is they were written in pencil, so they were smeared quite a bit too,” Kaufman told Shapiro in his report. 

Fix the records, then fix the problem

Before anyone could even begin to really fix the problem of the poisoned water in Flint, the issues of faded, outdated deteriorating as-built records had to be fixed.

Once parcel maps are pieced together and scanned into a computer, the 1980’s era data must be “field-checked” for accuracy.

Only then can any real action begin to fix the pipes in Flint.


Laura Sullivan knows about getting clean water to communities that don’t have it.  A professor at Kettering University in Flint, Sullivan has worked on clean water projects all over the world. That expertise has suddenly been called upon by state officials.

Sullivan cares deeply about the issue of the human right for access to clean water. The tragic irony for her is that she must now address it in her own home town.

When faced with the questions of citizens like Hattie Collins –“when you gonna fix it” Sullivan struggles for an answer. In fact, there is no firm answer, but Sullivan hopes the attention the problem is getting will be the urgently needed catalyst for change.

“What I can tell you is I firmly believe that the light is shining so brightly on the city of Flint right now, that if there were any entity that had any negative or malicious reason to slow things down, there’s no way they could do that,” Sullivan says. “And if there’s any entity that has the ability to make things right, they’re being empowered to do that.”

Read or listen to Shapiro’s full report on NPR here.

Image credit: under creative commons license 

Building on the Sustainable Development Goals

2015 was arguably a banner year for sustainable development. With the signing of the Paris Agreement at COP21 and adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations in September, the path is laid out for how we might develop sustainable and equitable economies across the globe.

Of course, that’s easier said that done. But tools and methods are already in place to make good on the promise.

When I was in Paris for COP21, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Meehan, CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). GRI has pioneered the methods and standards of corporate global sustainability reporting.

What we discussed in Paris, however, went far beyond that. Meehan explained how the future of GRI is in bringing the power of information and realtime data to policy, economic, social and environmental decisions throughout global organizations. Essentially “baking sustainability” into the process.

Read about sustainability “beyond the report” and the SDG Compass in my recent article for TriplePundit.