By now you’ve probably heard that there’s been a major coral bleaching event in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. What you might not know is why it’s such a big deal, so let’s talk about coral bleaching: how it happens, why it happens, and what it means to the reef, to people, and to the planet.
Although there are two types of coral reefs – shallow tropical and deeper cool-water reefs – coral bleaching is only an issue for the tropic kind, so when I talk about reefs I’m talking about the coral communities found in calm, warm tropical waters in the shallow regions around islands or along edges of larger land masses.
Coral reefs (dark pink dots) are found in calm, shallow tropical waters around the world. 
Coral reefs are formed over long periods of time in places where weather and ocean conditions are generally pretty stable. The hard mounds and ridges that form the structure of the reef are made of calcium carbonate: the remains of corals and other animals lived there . Large reefs like Australia’s World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef take thousands of years to form, with living corals growing on top of their ancestors: a colourful living layer atop the reefs of time past.
Corals themselves are tiny little animals that are related to jellyfish (phylum cnidaria). What we think of as a single coral – the single structure – is actually a colony of teeny individuals all of the same species, living together as some kind of super-organism. They’re not on their own though: the corals take on boarders called zooxanthellae, wee single-celled algae that live within the coral animal’s body tissues. The corals and their algae have a mutually-beneficial relationship, with the corals keeping the algae safe from other critters who would eat them, and the algae supplementing the coral’s food source by sharing some of the sugars they may through photosynthesis . It’s like having your own personal power plant just under your skin.
The wondrous bright colours of corals are a result of this happy cohabitation arrangement: pigments produced by the algae that get trapped beneath the coral’s skin. Without their algae boarders, corals lose their colour. Worse, without the sugars the algae provide through photosynthesis, the corals can’t catch enough food to meet their energy needs. Corals without algae turn white. This is called bleaching . A bleached coral is a very stressed coral indeed, and there’s a pretty good chance it’ll die.
So what makes corals lose their algae pals? Read More
Today is Earth Day.
I’ve spent it as I’ve spent most of the last eight weeks: inside, buried under required readings, assignment work, lectures and tutorials. While post-graduate study is challenging and intellectually rewarding, studying how to better care the environment feels like it is temporarily disconnecting me from much of it. My current life is very urban. I live and study in the inner city, surrounded by concrete, glass and steel. There’s precious little greenery and no wildness about Melbourne, but this, too, is the environment. This too is Earth.
When we think about environmentalism, about sustainability, about nature, we hold images in our mind like the photo above: a vast swathe of unspoilt Amazon rainforest. Places that take our breath away and make us want to protect them. Animals that inspire a sense of awe and wonder. This, we think, is worth protecting.
What about the every day places, the spaces we inhabit in our daily lives? This is our environment on the most intimate level: the space we interact with daily; the air we breathe, the ground we tread on, the food we eat. We are part of nature and these are the environments we create for ourselves. How then to value our cities and towns, these modified spaces? How to value properly the spiders, whose unappreciated efforts keep insect numbers down. How to value trees transplanted from elsewhere that never-the-less produce oxygen and filter pollution, anchoring themselves into paved-over soils and somehow staying alive? What about the once-wild streams now concreted and hidden beneath us? What about the pigeons and the sparrows that somehow manage to thrive here? This too is nature.
Today is Earth Day: a reminder to care for this planet and the forms of life that depend on her. A reminder that this planet is our environment, that we are part of nature: it shapes us as much as we shape it. The environment is not just the mystique of the Amazon or the brilliance of the Great Barrier Reef, it is the here and now of you and I, and how well we understand that, how we choose to value that, matters.
Today and every day in this still-unfamiliar city I am grateful: for the clean air I breathe, for the urban creeks I cycle by, for the exotic street trees in their autumnal glory, for the spiders and the sparrows, for the sky and wind and rain. This is my environment; something to care for, to protect and improve. After all, it’s keeping me alive.
What is the COP20?
COP stands for “Coalition of the Parties”, which is United Nations-speak for meetings of the countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and this particular meeting is called the COP20 as it is the 20th such meeting of the Parties.
Previous COPs worth mentioning include:
How big a deal is all this?
For the next 2 weeks the representatives of all the member parties – all 196 of them – will be talking here in Lima. These representatives of the majority of the world’s governments aim to negotiate new global agreements on greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change mitigation. The measures developed during these 2 weeks will be further tweaked then formally signed into being next year at the COP21 in Paris.
So why do these agreements matter?
The best understanding of the science indicates that an average global temperature increase of 2oC (3.6oF) is now the MINIMUM increase guaranteed to happen this century, and that even the best agreements at the COP can’t stop that from happening. The climate is already changing now, and the social and environmental impacts of that 2+oC change are already appearing. Here in Peru glaciers are disappearing, agricultural productivity is declining and water shortages are emerging, and it’s only going to get worse. We know the world is shifting, and that these changes are going to be economically, socially and ecologically significant.
Left un-checked, climate change, will irreversibly change the natural resources (soil, water, forest, oceans, air) we depend upon, with permanent effect on where we live, what and how much we eat, and just how many human beings can survive on our planet. Competition for decreasing natural resources will cause wars. There will be food shortages not just in poor countries, but rich countries too. Increased frequency and severity of climate-linked natural disasters, like hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, cold-snaps, floods and fires, will affect all of us. Read More
Protecting landscapes isn’t a novel idea. An appreciation for spectacular views and aesthetically special places drove the creation of the first national parks in Australia and many other parts of the world, long before we starting talking about things like biodiversity values and ecosystem services. In Australia we’ve protected these places by preventing their habitation or exploitation for anything more than tourism, but you can’t do that in a place like Peru where people have been part of the landscape for thousands of years, where the areas you want to protect not only hold great beauty, but also well-established communities, connected by roads and wires to the wider world and shaped by millennia of agriculture.
Nor Yauyos Cochas is a beautiful place; there is no arguing that. The territory of the Yauyino people, this Andean oasis boasts glacier-capped peaks and mirrored alpine lagoons revered as apus – natural gods – by the Andean people, as well as the spectacular turquoise waters of the upper Cañete river. The steep mountainsides are incised by ancient agricultural terraces and remnants of the old Inca road network – the Qapac Ñan – still connect the walking routes between villages, revealing the age and extent of human habitation in Peru’s central-western mountains. In the modern villages of Huancaya, Vilca, Tanta and Miraflores the modern world has made little intrusion. The houses are largely still hand-built adobe and special stone channels bring water from the river through the streets, where the Quechua-speaking locals collect it in kettles to boil for use. Read More
Twelve months ago this week I unpacked my bags in a simple hotel room and stepped out to meet Lima, the city that would be my home for the next year-and-a-bit.
Lima… almost 10 million people pressed up against the desert coast. The kind of place where no-one is truly from, if you go back far enough. The pre-Colombian cultures that built their mud and stone temples here fished and worshipped in the summers when the sun shines brightly and the rains pour down in the Andes. In the endless grey days of winter they returned to the hills and the fields of the river valleys. Permanent settlement came with the Spaniards who claimed this swampy coast for their capital in the conquest of the region.
So began the difficult history of this city, a place of clashing cultures and competing motivations. The Spaniards brought with them African slaves, then later Chinese coolies to work the silver mines and guano deposits. Japanese migrants came to settle at the end of the Second World War. Domestic terrorism in the Shining Path years drove the mass migration of Andean peoples to the city outskirts. Now and the promise of work and a better future for their children draws people from the far coast, the high Andes and the steaming Amazon to Lima. Read More
It’s a question I asked myself on my first day of work here in Lima. On Day 1 I arrived at the office and was handed an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for an irrigation project and asked to provide my opinion on the quality and the shortcomings of the EIA and the project. What on earth is a “bofedal”? Read More
I should be doing a final check for references on the blog post I’ve had sitting as a draft for the last fortnight: an article on one of the ecosystems here in Peru that’s really caught my aquatic-scientist attention. Instead, I’m going to tell you a story that I think is far more important. The story of Andres. Read More
So what’s it like being an environmental volunteer in the developing world? I can only answer as to my experiences here in Peru, but the same things hold true in many other places.
For me, this year has brought a lot of big challenges beyond just from being a long way from home and working in a foreign language and culture. The toughest stuff has been the reality of my work: good environmental management depends on understanding the problems out there and the resources that are available to (try to) deal with them, and sometimes can be quite shocking. Read More
When you choose a path to walk you cannot know exactly where it will lead you.
At best we can only see part-way to where the journey will take us and the obstacles we will encounter.
Adjust to the path as you find it and let it lead you where you need to go.
Let the journey become part of you.