Thursday, 6 March 2014

On the cliff edge in Crimea

Perched solidly on the cliff overlooking the expansive natural harbour of Sevastopol, Crimea, there is a magnificent stone building hosting one of the world’s oldest marine research stations, the A.O. Kovalevsky Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas (IBSS) of the Ukrainian Academy of Science. With 125 scientists and 220 support staff, this is one of the most important institutes in the Black Sea. But now, as several times in the past, it is a centre stage witness of one of the most difficult political stand-offs in modern Europe.
My first visit to IBSS was late in 1991 in the middle of the formal break-up of the Soviet Union. I flew from Moscow to Simferopol airport serving the capital of Crimea (and currently occupied by armed militia). Sitting next to me was a young student from Mali who was studying agricultural economics in Simferopol University. “Did the end of the communist system affect your studies?” I asked her in my deficient French. “The lecturer suddenly told us that everything we had learned the previous year was irrelevant, so they added another year to the course,” she told me. At the airport, I was met by my ‘minder’ from the international relations department of the institute. “How about a drink?” he said. That done, he suggested dinner and during our polite but protracted conversation was looking nervously at his watch. “Is there anything you should be telling me?” I asked, wondering why our journey hadn’t begun. “Err, OK, I’ll tell you. As you know, Sevastopol is a closed city and we need permission from the KGB for you to enter. Ahem, we put the wrong date on the form so we have to wait until midnight.”
For those of us nurtured on James Bond films, there was something exciting about entering a closed Soviet city steeped in military history at one in the morning (the fact that there was a visiting Italian naval ship in the harbour was a twist of irony). I stayed with the Director, Sergei Konovalov, a bear of a man, warm and hospitable. After a tour of the institute, two elderly senior researchers invited me for a walk and engaged in good humoured banter. “There is the headquarters of the Communist party; see, it’s been boarded up by order of Gorbachev.” “And you used to be a member,” said one of my hosts to the other. He smiled and responded “You gave up smoking and I gave up my membership; we all have to give up something.” Later we stopped at a little kiosk selling paper flags of the former Soviet republics and another good-humoured argument ensued on which one was the Ukrainian flag.
I sailed from Sevastopol and Yalta to Bulgaria on the research ship Prof Vodyanitskiy. Beyond our talk of research, conversations bubbled about the politics of the break-up and what this could mean for Crimea. “Look”, said Konovalov, “This is the first time we are allowed to sail past Foros.” Necks craned and binoculars were focussed on the coast towards the place where Gorbachev had been held hostage in his summer residence a few months earlier. “Now everyone is encouraged to sail past.”
Over the next 14 years, I returned many times to Crimea as a UN official, a researcher and leading a programme of public awareness. I was at the headquarters of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol when tense negotiations were going on about splitting the fleet between Russia and Ukraine and there was talk of armed conflict. The scene was surreal. At a reception hosted by the fleet commander, there was a stacked bank of heavy TV screens one end of the room with a mosaic image of pop videos. Outside, a crowd was chanting in Russian: ‘Russian Fleet, Russian Fleet’ and the sound wafted into the room during lulls in conversation and blaring music. Exactly at five pm, the chanting stopped and the crowd vanished, just in time for the commander to wish us well. ‘Command-control’ extends well beyond the wardroom in Crimea, just as it still does in modern Russia.
As a country, Ukraine has had a difficult birth with its divided ethnicity and struggling economy. The ethnic and political centrifugal forces that pulled Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia apart are acting in Ukraine where there are sharp divisions between the Ukrainian speaking West and Russian East. And just as Serbia declared that it would intervene anywhere there was a minority population of Serbs, so does Russia when it perceives the interests of its own nationals are in jeopardy. Beyond that however, in many places there is still a huge nostalgia for the Soviet past. To what degree does this yearning influence the politics today?
Thirteen years after my first visit, I returned to Sevastopol as Chief Scientist on the Bulgarian research ship Akademik. No longer a closed city, the place was bustling with activity and the waterfront now had a wide range of restaurants and clubs, one right under the Marine Hydrophysical Institute, Sevastopol’s other marine research centre. But we had arrived on the 9th of May, Victory Day, the event that commemorates the capitulation of Germany in the Second World War. This event is particularly poignant for Sevastopol which suffered a 220 day bombardment. The well-rehearsed massive parade of several thousand troops, sailors, elderly veterans laden with medals and garlands of flowers, schoolchildren and workers, stirred a genuine emotional vortex that could not fail to bring tears to the eyes. And the spectacular fireworks and festivities that followed made, and still make, this a big family festivity. I walked up the hill to the statue of Lenin pointing at the decrepit Russian naval fleet from the vantage point of his column below which a few wreaths had been laid. The past, romanticised as it was, remained very much alive in the present.
And it was not just a matter of romantic illusions. The crumbling concrete seafront of Yalta or the popular resort of Alushta bear witness to the time when Crimea was the holiday destination of choice for Soviet citizens. Many of the more favoured young people spent idyllic times in the Artek pioneer camp which helped mould their own values in later life. Many of that generation still find it difficult to comprehend the abrupt change as the bubble burst and the Soviet Union collapsed; they conflate Russia’s apparent return to prosperity and their own ethnicity with resentment against the Yeltsin-era chaos and the formation of a new Ukrainian state. And these sentiments are easily exploited.
Now the West watches haplessly as the choreography plays out. It missed its chance to invest in the 1990s and offer a new prospect for future prosperity (though this was easier said than done). Not everyone in Crimea wants to return to Russian rule; there are those who genuinely believe in a federated Ukraine and now fear repression. And there are the ethnic Tatars, carried to these lands from the time of Genghis Khan and partly extradited from it by Stalin’s social engineering. I ran an environmental awareness workshop for teachers from Black Sea countries in Alushta in 2002 and we experienced some of the warm Tatar hospitality. Our Turkish participants were whisked off to the mosque on Friday (“but I never go to the mosque”, one of them protested); the Tatars have been prospering and enjoying freedoms they did not experience in the Soviet past and they too will be watching the situation with trepidation. But they too are a minority.
I fear for Ukraine and for my friends on both sides of the emerging ethnic divide. It is easy to rip the emerging country apart in the new Great Game between East and West. I stood with Ukrainian colleagues in the cemetery in Kharkiv where lines of headstones record the Polish officers killed by Stalin’s KGB in the Second World War. One of the group, a former Soviet paratrooper with a robust and cheerful demeanour stood silently, his face stricken with sadness. “You see that grave” he said, “he had the same surname as me.”

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Après le déluge

The rain and wind in the South of Britain this winter seems interminable as storm after storm is blasted towards us by the Jet Stream breaking records of the worst kind (stormiest, wettest, etc). Well over double the seasonal average rainfall in some places, though not here on the NW coast of Scotland where the Jet Stream has almost left us in peace. And as the flooding continues, more people are stranded, more transport is delayed and tempers become frayed; with scenes of anguished people, depressed or angrily seeking someone to blame.

Last week I was crossing the now infamous Somerset Levels in a train with rain lashing on the roof, picking its way along a causeway with vast stretches of flooded land on either side. Now this line too has been closed. A huge tract of wetlands and lowlands has succumbed to rivers, backed up by exceptional tides on their seaward ends, overflowing their banks. And the tabloid newspapers that heralded ‘the storm of the century’ had to announce ‘the even bigger storm of the century’. Moreover, on the TV, everyone can witness the angry exchanges between flood victims and officials powerless to bring a short-term solution to the misery. “Why weren’t the rivers dredged?” they demanded. “Because our budgets were constrained and we had to prioritise” came the honest but unpopular answer.

And just down the coast in Dawlish, a huge storm has washed away the railway line, cutting the vital connection to the South West, bleeding the economy like a severed artery in a leg. The line was constructed on a causeway along the coast over 170 years ago; an unusual but picturesque choice of route chosen – yes – because of budgetary constraints. And the relief route, inland around the North of Dartmoor was closed in 1968 because it was making a loss and there was a perfectly satisfactory main line … along the coast. Winter storms were always a problem along the line and there are classic pictures of steam trains emerging from the spindrift of waves smashing against the breakwaters. But start adding sea level rise to the equation and sooner or later a threshold for collapse would be exceeded (like many other colleagues, I had pointed this out a decade ago but the engineers insisted the line could cope). So the line is closed, the drama continues and the whole country has been gripped by the pictures and reports.

But what are the lessons learned?  

Firstly, with climate change it is easy to hide behind the statistics. An average sea level rise of 4mm a year seems paltry when the tides may rise and fall by as much as one thousand times this twice a day. But 100 years of sea level rise – which may be accelerating – adds at least 40cm, to the baseline ('datum'); a huge increase in hydrostatic pressure and the power of waves as they strike the coast. And a 1 in 100 year extreme event gives the false comfort that it may never occur in our lifetimes. But the frequency of such extreme events may vary in cycles and there is some empirical evidence that they are increasing. Catastrophes happen because of these extremes and they are poorly studied and difficult to predict; we can only say that more of them are likely to occur as a function of human-driven global change.

Secondly, we have to take the long view. On my long and frequently interrupted journey north, I looked up the Somerset Levels on Google Scholar and was surprised by the wealth of articles - many from the 1940s - that examined the issue of inundations in the region. Pollen records in sediments track the length and timing of the floods and the sediments themselves reveal the frequency of flooding. There is a pattern of inundations going back at least 4000 years, with periods when they were more, or less, severe. And communities were built on the knolls that were above usual flood levels (and are temporary islands today). There were big flooding events like that of 30 January 1607, studied in 2006 by Kevin Horsburgh of NOC, Liverpool and Matt Horritt from the University of Bristol (reference below). Dubbed as ‘God’s warning to his people of England’, the flooding killed hundreds of people on the Bristol Channel coast and Somerset Levels. It followed an intense westerly storm at the time of a spring tide and this must have generated a major storm surge. The wind later swung to the East as the storm passed over Britain and pushed a surge into the Wash in East Anglia, causing major flooding there. The loss of life may have been greater than the flooding in 1953. Interestingly, Horsburgh and Horritt point out that the 16th and 17th centuries were exceptionally windy and there were 128 North Sea floods in the 17th century … and that this may have been caused by a southward displacement of the jet stream! What if the same pattern is returning, and coupled with higher sea levels and increased population density?

The third lesson is that we cannot continue to manage our economy as if there is no tomorrow; and by ‘tomorrow’ I don’t mean 2015. We have to take the issue of global change seriously and ‘muddling through’ simply won’t guarantee the resilience that moves ‘sustainable development’ from rhetoric to commitment. We need serious long term planning; a masterplan that spans multiple political terms of office and engages every sector. Either brace yourselves to share the cost of resilience or brace yourselves, and your children to an increasing chain of catastrophes, social and economic setbacks and missed opportunities.


  • Horsburgh, K & Horritt, M (2006) The Bristol Channel floods of 1607–reconstruction and analysis. Weather, 61(10), 272-277.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Planning for a winter wonderland

The Sans Vitesse is an accommodation barge for oil workers, moored in Lerwick harbour  
Travelling today to Shetland, Britain's most northern island chain, further North than the tip of Greenland. An early morning wake up call to listen to Nelson Mandela's funeral on the radio. I pause in awe of the poignancy of the ceremony. But then the shipping forecast: "Wind Southerly or South-westerly storm 10 to hurricane 12, decreasing 7 to severe gale 9. Sea state high or very high, occasionally very rough at first in North. Rain or squally showers. Visibility poor." I text my colleague Ian Bryden, Vice Principal for Research at the University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) who will travel up with me from Edinburgh airport: "doesn't look like we'll be flying anywhere today, Ian". He responds nonchalantly: "Loganair tend to be fairly cavalier about wind speed - otherwise nobody would ever get to Orkney and Shetland!" So I pack my thermal underwear and begin the three hour drive to the airport, hoping few trees will be blown across the road.
"No seatbelts off on this flight" said the pilot as the small Saab turboprop leapt into the air. We bounced through the murk, accompanying the small group of relaxed Shetlanders and nervous Chinese oil terminal workers heading out to help service the main economic activity on the 70 mile chain of Islands. And then the anticipated descent, lurching for long minutes a few hundred feet over mountainous seas blurred white with spindrift. And a short climb over rocky outcrops in the boiling waters below the windswept lighthouse of Sumburgh Head, a sharp turn and what seemed to be a full power noisy but perfect landing. The sigh of relief from passengers was palpable, even from the wry cabin attendant who was clutching a toilet roll and bags ready for the inevitable. "Hang on as you get out" we were warned as we braced ourselves for the howling wind.
And so to the little port of Scalloway, parking next to a brightly lit Christmas tree bent double by the wind. "You're lucky" said the hotelier, "the next flight was cancelled".
We didn't come here as adrenaline junkies: we had arranged to meet with colleagues from the NAFC Marine Centre, a specialist partner of UHI like my institute, SAMS. The smart modern buildings of the Centre increasingly staffed by qualified young people who have returned to the islands, started as the North Atlantic Fisheries College but the name changed in pace with Shetland's broadening economy and evolving view of marine management. This is a story worth telling because Shetland has pioneered one of Europe's first marine spatial plans and this is being granted statutory designation in Scotland.
Shetland's twenty thousand or so inhabitants have always been better served by resources from the sea than those provided by the bleak treeless landscape. "There's fish on the menu; we're surrounded by them" I was told in a Scalloway restaurant. But the popular view of abundance belies the fact that some resources were heavily overfished, requiring management measures such as the 'Shetland Box' negotiated with local fishermen. As early as 1974, the Zetland County Council Act gave authority over most management issues out to 12 nautical miles and the Council took an early lead in promoting Integrated Coastal Zone Management. This was at a time where there were radical changes in the use of marine space: new fin fish and shellfish aquaculture, the Sullom Voe oil terminal and rapid port development to deal with the burgeoning demands of a rapidly expanding industry. As these demands increased, so did the need for rational management of the precious marine space. And an awareness of the risks was further heightened by the disastrous Braer oil spill in 1993, highlighting the need to integrate environmental protection into planning.
So by 2004 when the concept of marine spatial planning began to emerge, Shetland was already at the forefront of innovation in planning and was an obvious choice for the first Scottish Sustainable Marine Environment Initiative (SSMEI). This piloted approaches to be used in a marine strategy for Scotland. NAFC played a leading role in this work, developing a relationship of trust with the key stakeholders. The first maps were produced showing development priorities. The evolution in thinking in the decade that has followed is impressive. There are new issues on the agenda including proposals for marine renewable energy, increased occurrence of toxic algal blooms, climate change and the potential of seaweed aquaculture. And on top of that is the changing legislative backdrop with designations of specially protected areas, the emergent EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive and new marine legislation at the UK and Scottish level. As each development has occurred, there has been a need to respond at a local level, which explains why the 2014 iteration of the Marine Spatial Plan will be the fourth.
Skills and thinking in NAFC have also evolved rapidly. There is a willingness to embrace new ideas on sensitivity mapping and cumulative impacts and the 2014 plan will reflect the state of the art. There are tangible benefits such as newly certified sustainable fisheries and the access these give to quality markets. Culture and heritage are not ignored either, a refreshing side to a potentially technocratic world. And this is reflected in the NAFC itself which hosts a little enclave of the UHI Centre for Nordic Studies, a reminder of Shetland's distant past that still resonates in its special relationship with the sea.  The Nordic heritage is also celebrated in the somewhat contrived but hugely renowned Up Helly Aa winter festival with the characteristic burning of replica Viking longboats. How welcome a break this must be from the five hours of weak winter daylight that we were witnessing.
Bodies such as NAFC are important at a community level, providing an essential bridge between competing stakeholder needs and the limited supply of natural system services to meet them. They can be seen as a source of fairness, technology, information and transferrable skills but may sometimes be undervalued when cheap short-term fixes replace more costly but sound long-term planning. Hopefully this will not happen in Shetland and the beacon of leadership in this field will shine far and wide. There are many unresolved problems to be overcome but I leave Shetland with a positive feeling about human endeavour … and what better way to finish the year!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Sustainability: How do we know when we've got there?

As Director of an independent marine institute, I have become used to having to balance the books. With the help of innovative and hard-working staff and a savvy Board and Council we have managed to do this well in the past five years without relying on ‘hand outs’. But I must admit, we all have to pedal harder and harder to keep up with the peloton and they are all doing the same. We have come to accept this as a ‘fact of life’ and encourage others to do the same. I have had my doubts about the sustainability of this lifestyle we have all adopted for some time and a recent paper that the economist Bob Costanza sent me has given me even more food for thought. The paper, titled Beyond GDP: Measuring and achieving global genuine progress is published in Ecological Economics by a team led by Ida Kubiszewski.

The idea behind it isn’t new. Most people will be familiar with the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) because it is the ‘gold standard’ for measuring economic success and even a whiff of improvement in GDP is trumpeted as a major political achievement when Western economies are gasping for air. But few people (or indeed politicians) really know what GDP means, only that it is something to do with the rate of shovelling money through the economy. There is a misconception that GDP and welfare are always linked and this has been pointed out for some time by ecological economists such as Herman Daly in the USA. There are many aspects of the economy not considered by GDP such as the unpaid work of childcare. GDP also reflects activity harmful for welfare; wars and oil spill clean ups are good for GDP for example, growing your own vegetables isn’t. A number of alternative measures of welfare have been devised and indices derived, the most promising of which is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which, though not comprehensive, certainly overcomes many of the issues described above. Kubiszewski et al provide the most thorough compilation to date of all of these measures and derive some results that are worth reflecting on.

For a start, at a global level, GDP and GPI became decoupled sometime in the late 1970s. Of course, there are big variations between individual countries but the overall pattern is very clear. Around 1978, many people found themselves working harder and harder for less tangible welfare benefits. Perhaps this is a rather simplistic statement but it deserves further reflection; a number of indices suggest the same. A plot of GDP versus GPI shows the two indices decoupling at about $7000 US per capita annual income (a number that would be very hard to live on in the UK!). Clearly more work will be needed to interpret this finding; the authors suggest that ultimately richer countries may have to forego their pursuit of growth measured by GDP and look at GPI or some other measure of genuine progress. For those at the bottom of the ladder, GDP and GPI remain coupled, so encouraging growth in the poorest countries in the world certainly helps them on their way to ‘progress’, providing that the benefits of progress are distributed amongst the population. For most Western countries, ‘decoupling’ began in the late 1970s though it has taken decades for the effects to be seen so clearly.

(c) Laurence Mee
How does this relate to the marine environment? Many of us enjoy working towards innovative ways of helping society live within the limits of what our planet’s systems can sustain: new technologies that are more cost efficient and effective; less wasteful ways of fishing; the challenge of producing non fossil fuel energy; aquaculture that has minimal environmental impact; ways to achieve more deeply embedded environmental ethics. The problem is that most of these developments require long-term investments and their impacts, though hugely significant, are long term. There is a real danger that investments in these innovations may begin to stall as short term ‘fixes’ are hustled to the top of the political agenda (e.g. fracking in, wave energy out) even though a carefully balanced mix of the long and short term will be necessary to safeguard future welfare. Some of the longer-term innovations might help us to live in a world with slow – or no – economic growth, an unthinkable or even heretic concept for many conventional economic advisors. And this is not just about finding clever ways to use all of the marine resources we can find; it is also about the balance between use and conservation and a less hubristic view of our own science…

Of course, it is equally easy to take a ‘hair shirt’ view of sustainability, perhaps hiding away from the real challenges of defining and pursuing ‘genuine progress’ at a global level. Or worse, the NIMBYism (not in my back yard) that simply exports the ugly aspects of production to distant places out of sight and mind. By reframing the political debate from ill-defined and much abused clichés such as ‘sustainable development’ or dare I say, ‘the ecosystem approach’, towards a deeper discussion of ‘genuine progress’ it is just possible that we can engage all sides of an increasingly polarised political arena and come up with some more meaningful options and indicators of societal progress. Current paradigms are seriously undermined by their lack of clear indicators of achievement needed to give them ‘teeth’ on the political agenda (how do we know we have reached sustainable development or achieved the ecosystem approach?). They are easily fobbed off as ‘green arm waving idealism’. The Genuine Progress Indicator, perhaps with some further development, could change that, providing there is a clear understanding that we cannot drive the societal train through the buffers of ecosystem limits.

Kubiszewski, Ida, Robert Costanza, Carol Franco, Philip Lawn, John Talberth, Tim Jackson, and Camille Aylmer. "Beyond GDP: Measuring and achieving global genuine progress." Ecological Economics 93 (2013): 57-68.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The calm before the storm - global climate change

Today an important piece of science news has been buried amongst the shocking revelations of chemical weapons used in Syria and the more trivial but captivating stories of human brain tissue grown in a test tube. A paper in the journal Nature by Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie from Scripps Institution of Oceanography has assembled and tested evidence explaining the seemingly erratic nature of global temperature changes in the past half century.

It’s a quiet evening here in Western Scotland; the sea is placid and there is an eerie calm before a predicted gale tomorrow morning. I rowed out to my 77 year-old ketch Ettrick swaying gently on her mooring. It is a good place to work, my laptop glowing white in the dim light of the navigation table. No distractions apart from the occasional whir of the bilge pump reminding me that the pitch pine planks have still not completely ‘taken up’, swollen enough to plug all the little leaks (this usually happens just before I take her out of the water again).
Global temperature anomalies during the lifetime of Ettick  (based on data from CRU) and a speculative indication of what might happen in the next decades.

For the entire life of Ettrick, and even before, the world’s climate has been changing and temperature has been on the rise, mostly due to human activities that release greenhouse gases. The global average rise hasn’t been constant, however, and there have been two clear flat periods where the process seems to have stalled: the period from about 1943 to 1972 and the current period, starting just before the beginning of the Millennium.

The latest of these two periods has been the lynchpin in the argument of climate change sceptics (and deniers). They argue that if there is no temperature change, there is no global warming. Frankly, many scientists were also in denial but pointed out that temperature is still well above the long term average; if there was no global warming, they should have gone down again. But the fact remained that it was difficult to explain where the increasing amounts of heat is going, especially as the rise in greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is inexorable.

A little discussed fact is that the heat storage capacity of seawater is hugely greater than the atmosphere. Indeed, the entire heat storage of the atmosphere is equivalent to that of some 2.5 metres of the sea below it – and the average depth of the ocean is 4km! So the Earth’s atmospheric temperature field is incredibly sensitive to the way heat is stored and transported in the oceans. We have known for over a century that the tropical Pacific exhibits major climatic shifts related to an occasional switch in the east-west atmospheric pressure gradient. Most spectacularly, this can result in a surge of warm surface water near the coasts of Ecuador, Peru and Chile that suppresses the upwelling of cold sub-surface nutrient rich water that normally makes the sea particularly fertile in those places and ultimately leads to the richest fishery in the world. This phenomenon, commonly known as El Niño, has devastating economic consequences and leads to climatic anomalies in distant places on land. The reverse phenomenon, popularly named La Niña, also occurs from time to time, leading to a warm pool of water in the Western Pacific and intensified upwelling in the East. Again, there are associated climatic perturbations across the whole tropical world.

Scientists have been trying to predict these ENSO (El Niño – Southern Oscillation) events for decades, and many have lost their reputation in the process. As longer data series became available, it was evident that, on a longer timescale, there were periods where El Niño or La Niña events were particularly frequent or intense and that a longer term cycle was present. Although this affects about 8% of the ocean surface, Kosaka and Xie have demonstrated it to change heat transport sufficiently to affect global temperatures. The flat part of the global temperature signal reflects periods where heat is transported away from the atmosphere more effectively. However, the reverse then occurs and temperature change accelerates again.

But this is not simply a story of how to win arguments with climate change sceptics. After all, we should thank them for challenging scientific hubris. The stepwise change to our climate is even more worrying than a linear prediction of change. For a start, we don’t know when the new phase of accelerated temperature change will begin. And some communities of plants and animals may not be able to cope with the sudden rise. This happened around 1997 when exceptional temperatures triggered massive coral bleaching and death.

How can we convince people that we are in the calm before the storm of renewed global warming? There are so many problems affecting our planet that it would be easy to put what appears to be a ‘non-problem’ aside, or even worse to happily exploit new reserves of fossil fuel because this is ‘good for the economy’. As scientists, we should look at the evidence very carefully and then find ways to communicate it to a wider audience if we are convinced ourselves.

The Kosaka and Xie paper is only one step in unveiling the full story of ocean heat transport and I suspect that there will be some further major revelations as more data is assimilated into improved models. The authors claim to be able to explain the entire anomaly but the origins of the cycles behind the ENSO events remain unclear. We still don’t understand why marine climatology can suddenly switch from one state to another (the so-called ‘regime shifts’).

In my view (and of many colleagues), there is a danger in hanging the entire climate change debate around a single indicator: global mean temperature. This ignores very significant regional variations and the all-important fact that a proportion of the heat absorbed by the ocean is being used to melt Arctic sea ice with global consequences. The biological effects of changes in the ocean are already being felt and have recently been clearly documented by my colleague Mike Burrows and others in a paper in Nature Climate Change. The ‘frontline’ of marine species distribution is moving towards the poles at an average of 72 km per decade, over ten times the speed of land species. And this is the long-term average, not taking into account the sudden spurts of temperature change that may well overtake the capacity of some natural systems to adapt.

So what will the sea be like in 2050, when Ettrick is 114 years old? We will have seen another surge in global warming by them, perhaps still on-going. With the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it will be too late to do anything about it. Perhaps it will not be the nightmare of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:
The planks looked warped!
and see those sails, 
How thin they are and sere! 
However, we have sufficient reasons to call for more precaution and to invest more in understanding the crucial role that the ocean plays in determining our future. No time for complacency.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Istanbul riots: trading green for blue

Riots, looting and public unrest are not the usual subjects of this blog but the on-going serious disturbances in Istanbul have caught my attention and I can’t get them out of my mind. The disturbances two nights ago were in the district of Beşiktaş where I used to work and spend much of my time, dodging traffic jams, safely wandering through the narrow dusty streets as I walked home to my flat overlooking the busy Bosphorus, eating in my favourite fish restaurant by the market (they put my photo up on the wall with many other regulars; great ploy to keep customers) or my sumptuous $2 lunches of bamya, nohut and pilaf. I bought the table on which I write most of my blogs on the street that is now occupied by protesters. Turkey is full of lovely generous people and Istanbul, with around 15 million people, is its most cosmopolitan and overcrowded city. Whenever the arrivals hall of Ataturk Airport discharges me into its hubbub, I feel a curious sense of homecoming.

When I left Istanbul fifteen years ago, I would never have guessed these riots could happen. My interest is not casual though. As the senior UN officer in Istanbul, I kept the ‘red folder’ with phone numbers of all UN personnel, had received my ‘how to spot a car bomb’ training and could have told everyone to pack their bags in an emergency. This was so unlikely that I found the thought of calling the World Bank office and telling them to pack, positively amusing. I hung out with the international correspondents and a major topic of conversation was (and is) the high risk of a devastating earthquake or a ship blowing up in the middle of the city. We did have the odd bombing or two, nothing major, at least until the dreadful incident when Al Qaida hit the British Consulate, killing the consul. But by and large, Istanbul has always remained the quintessential meeting place of East and West, mysterious and enigmatic; tolerant and forgiving, a neutral safe ground. So what has changed?
I don’t want to talk about the politics, especially as Turkey has a legitimate and democratically elected government. This is not an ‘Arab spring’; if people want to remove the government they can vote for somebody else when the time comes. It is a protest turned violent; a juxtaposition of many causes and frustrations made sour by the stench of tear gas and growing authoritarianism. It may change popular psyche for many years, just as the Toxteth Riots changed Liverpool for ever and the word ‘Lambeth’ is now associated with ‘riot’ and not with ‘palace’. No; what triggered this blog was the central issue of preservation of green spaces in a city that has almost lost its parks and open public spaces. This, the protesters claim, is one of the key reasons for the dispute.

Not that we are talking about beautifully manicured lawns yielding to bulldozers; Gezi Park next to Taksim Square is a scruffy place surrounded by cacophonous traffic jams, but for many it is deeply symbolic and the government wants to change the symbol with a major new development, and more to follow.

There is a huge psychological significance of green and blue spaces. I have watched families, probably immigrants from Anatolia, setting up picnics on the grass of roadside verges – even roundabouts – with traffic roaring past. Coastal cities are particularly vulnerable to ‘green squeeze’; ironically because people are attracted to the seashore and trade off the ‘green’ for the ‘blue’ as property prices begin to soar. If everything is left to the market, ‘blue’ will probably always win – and you can’t drop your picnic mat on ‘blue’. How then, do we keep a balance?

This is an issue that is vexing many colleagues concerned with the wider aspects of environmental health. Istanbul is almost a worst case scenario. According to a 2009 study of green spaces in over 300 EU cities (Fuller and Gaston, 2009), there is a huge range of green space per capita from 3 sq m (Cadiz) to 300sq m (Liege), depending how compact the city is. New green spaces tend to be created as cities expand in area. But a recent study in Istanbul (Aksoy, 2012) showed that green spaces have reduced as the city expands, from 3.39 sq m at the core to 0.88 sq m in the new ‘outer ring’. The overall 1.1 sq m is the worst in Europe by far. My flat, peering over a busy ferry terminal to the blue Bosphorus, gave some relief from the angst of concrete but most people aren’t so lucky. In Istanbul, ‘blue’ is for the rich, not for the poor; the most elegant houses are by the sea. And yet, recent studies have shown that ‘the positive effects of coastal proximity may be greater amongst more socio-economically deprived communities’ (because of stress reduction) (Wheeler et al., 2012) but these benefits are unattainable when property prices rise sharply towards the coast. Hardly surprising that passion has risen, particularly when green space has, in effect, been traded off for coastal development and for services. Imagine the floor space of the average family house or flat. That is the same as the green space available to 100 people in Istanbul today.

The solution to this conundrum has to be wise management. There are principles to this such as those embodied in Integrated Coastal Zone Management but even these require better ways of valuation that encompass values associated with social and cultural capital as well as the short term trade-offs of a financial kind. We haven’t mastered these ourselves so we cannot expect it of others. The default position has to be governance based on a more precautionary approach where we simply regard parks, terrestrial or marine, as sacrosanct in recognition of the need to protect the intangible psychological interests of current and future generations.

  • Y Aksoy (2012) An evaluation of distribution and quantity of parks in Instanbul. Urban Development.
  • RA Fuller and KJ Gaston (2009) The scaling of green space coverage in European cities. Biol Lett 5(3) 352-353
  • BW Wheeler, M White W Stahl-Timmins and MH Depledge (2012) Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing? Health & Place 18(5): 1198–1201

Monday, 13 May 2013

A sombre milestone for humanity

Ralph Keeling runs the Mauna Loa observatory where his father began CO2 measurements 55 years ago. He recently had the unenviable responsibility to tell the world that CO2 levels have passed the 400ppm mark for the first time, the highest level for about 4 million years. The news fleetingly passed through the front page of some newspapers; others steadfastly ignored it. Disbelief and overt scepticism maybe, but also the denial of an alcoholic diagnosed with the early stages of cirrhosis.
Of course, 400 is just a number, just as a blood serum glutamate pyruvate transaminase level of 100 is meaningless to most people; though it would tell a doctor that you could be about to suffer liver failure. Whether or not you believe the doctor’s gobbledegook only depends on one word: trust. And whether or not you take action depends on a more complex balance of assessing personal and collective risk, trading the cost of action and immediate rewards of risky behaviour against future benefits, and all of this filtered through individual and collective values. Right now, it would probably be easier to win an election by lowering fuel prices and opening coal mines than campaigning to curb CO2 emissions. Mission suicide? What is going wrong? Pour yourself a drink and read on…

Let’s start with the evidence that people really are losing interest in climate change (if you are wondering what this has to do with the sea, be patient, I’ll get there eventually). According to the UK Foresight programme, “Recent polling suggests that scepticism about climate change has increased, alongside diminished concern for its effects. In 2006, 81% of surveyed UK citizens were fairly or very concerned about climate change compared with 76% in 2009 in an identical tracking survey”. Our own surveys, conducted in 2010 by ICM for the KnowSeas project that I direct, indicate that just under 40% of UK citizens are ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about climate change, the lowest percentage of the seven countries we surveyed (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Poland, UK). You shouldn’t read too much into this difference because the terms ‘concerned’ and ’very concerned’ are culturally sensitive but the results are further evidence of a serious problem. Across Europe, the attitude of the younger generation (18-24 year old) was particularly worrying as less than 50% of those interviewed in France, Germany, Poland and the UK were concerned or very concerned. An even stronger result has emerged for a recent YouGov survey in the UK that suggests a swing from 2008 when 55% of those interviewed  thought human activity was making the world warmer, 25% thought the world was getting warmer, but not because of humanity and  7% thought the world was not getting warmer. to the current (2013) situation when 39% think human activity was making the world warmer, 16% think the world is getting warmer, but not because of humanity and 28% thought the world was NOT getting warmer.
Icebergs off the Ilulissat Glacer. © Laurence Mee

So it is clear that interest is waning. In part this may be due to the lack of tangible evidence for most people; it doesn’t feel warmer and the reality is that we have had a few awful summers. Coupled with that, like the Titanic, the economy seems to have hit an iceberg and the crew appear to be running around reorganising deck chairs and telling everyone that the ship is fundamentally sound. It isn’t easy for the incredulous passengers to think about long term issues like their pension plans or what lies on the horizon when the supply of lifejackets is short. We need to find simpler explanatory language that most people can understand. Imagine a bowl of water with some ice cubes for example; if we gently warm the water, the ice cubes will begin to melt but the change in temperature in the water will be hardly noticeable… until the ice cubes melt completely. Most people can understand that. And we can explain that by the time the temperature starts to soar, all kind of change will have occurred with strange climate shifts, sea level rise and fundamental changes in the chemistry and biology of our waters.

In some senses it is remarkable that given the lack of tangible evidence for most people, so much public interest has been attracted to climate change issues. It reveals considerable trust in scientists and we must not descend into hubris and betray this trust (maybe this is already happening). Personally speaking, as a marine scientist, I find several aspects of global change not directly or indirectly related to warming equally deeply scary:
  • Sea level is rising incredibly fast; even a very conservative half metre in 100 years would make a huge difference in places like Bangladesh and even in the UK, the 2007 North Sea storm surge was only 10 cm below a level that would have caused catastrophic damage. Twenty five years of current sea level rise would make a huge difference.
  • The oceans are acidifying, particularly in polar regions, and this is changing their geochemistry and biology. We do not understand the full meaning of this change but it is directly related to CO2 levels and the link is unequivocal and not a target of militant climate sceptics discussing hockey sticks.
  • There are changes in ocean oxygen levels happening already and oxygen minima appear to be intensifying. We really do not fully understand what this will mean for life in the oceans in the longer term but it is part of a process of accelerating change.
  • We are beginning to see evidence of changes in ocean circulation and heat transport that will have implications for regional climate but may also affect the fertility of our seas, the distribution of plants and animals and our food security. Scientists are struggling to separate natural cycles and human-induced change because our observations have been for such a short period but the evidence is mounting.
  • The quest for more and more fossil fuels to feed our addiction means that we are taking greater risks; drilling in deeper waters and more hostile environments and pursuing riskier transport routes. And oil transportation has had the unexpected outcome of moving plants and animals across the planet in a way that has not happened in millennia through natural processes.
Are we getting this message across? I don’t think so, partly because of locked horns on the details of ‘hockey sticks; and the symbolic 3 degrees C warming (that now seems inevitable) continues to be denied but isn’t really the central issue in the debate.

In 2008, I was asked to participate in a live broadcast on BBC Radio 5 from a ship off the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland (allegedly the glacier that calved the iceberg that sunk the Titanic) during a period of major sea ice retreat. Some journalists on board warned that I was being set up against a recalcitrant climate sceptic in the studio in London and sure enough, he spouted the usual rhetoric. “Let’s be honest” I commented. “Science is not 100% certain. Imagine if we are only 50% right (and I think we are much better than that). Would you get on a plane if you were told there was a 50% chance of it crashing? You would be demanding action, wouldn’t you?”