While media coverage confuses, oceans suffer

Some of the creatures studied by Huw Griffiths of the British Anatarctic Survey, that may be impacted by warming oceans

Some of the creatures studied by Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey, that may be impacted by warming oceans.

A lack of context in media reports has given some arguments against climate change a higher profile than is justified, a University of Colorado, Boulder, professor has claimed. Max Boykoff made his comments as the Annual Meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego drew to a close on February 22. The event, one of the largest in world science, saw Boykoff’s presentation accompanied by numerous other researchers reporting the latest on how rising temperatures have been impacting the environment.

Boykoff has analysed media coverage of global warming in 20 countries since 2004, finding that potentially fair criticisms of climate research have been gathered together with less justified claims. Mixing both groups means that flawed arguments are set against solid climate change research. “This has been detrimental both in terms of dismissing legitimate critiques of climate science or policy, as well as amplifying extreme and tenuous claims,” Boykoff said.

The arguments that follow are then easier and more familiar for journalists to report, although Boykoff sees this as a distraction from the important questions. “Reducing climate science and policy considerations to a tit-for-tat between dueling personalities comes at the expense of appraising fundamental challenges regarding the necessary de-carbonization of industry and society,” he said.

Also reporting in San Diego was Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey, who studies the vast range of creatures who live in the very southernmost regions of the planet. He has found that populations of krill, small shrimp-like sea creatures eaten by penguins, whales and seals, has fallen because of decreased sea-ice cover. They are being replaced by smaller crustaceans called copepods, a food source that favours smaller predators like jellyfish. In some regions the reduced area of ice is also affecting penguins, which need it to breed on.

“The Polar Regions are amongst the fastest warming places on Earth,” Griffiths said. “Predictions suggest that in the future we’ll see warming sea surface temperatures, rising ocean acidification and decreasing winter sea ice – all of which have a direct effect on marine life.”

Meanwhile, Simon Donner of the University of British Columbia explained how global warming’s impact on coral could also impact the food chain for millions of people. Corals gets their colour and much of their energy from algae living within them. When environmental conditions move outside of the normal range, the coral forces the algae out, losing its colour and eventually dying.

Donner says that 30 years ago these bleaching events were thought extremely rare, but they have been increasingly common since, and are set to become even more so in future. “Even if we froze emissions today, the planet still has some warming left in it,” he said. “That’s enough to make bleaching dangerously frequent in reefs worldwide.”

While coral will not be completely wiped out, Donner expects that the areas in which they do survive will diminish. The impact on the environment will hit home as the ecosystem around the coral reefs is disrupted, and fishing and tourism suffer thereafter. “There are hundreds of millions of people who depend on them for their livelihood,” he explained.