"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, June 9, 2008

Denialists Convincing Selves of Biodiversity Increase

Lawrence Solomon has an article in the Financial Post pointing to the unsurprising fact that satellite obs show that biomass is increasing (we have known that biomass is increasing for some time) and manages to leave the reader with the idea that satellite observations indicate an increase in biodiversity. The evidence for that latter link? A "report" circulated along with the current round of the Oregon petition!

This made Slashdot as "Scientists Surprised to Find Earth's Biosphere Booming"  unfortunately. 

The denialist echo chamber is eating it up, of course. Carbon dioxide! Yum! Let's have more of that please! e.g.:
Picked this up in ICECAP and posted it in a couple places already this morning, Anthony, being absolutely delighted both by its content and its inspiring message. Earth, you are beautiful, and just so much bigger than any wishful doomsayer.
Warms your heart, huh? Our cuddly little planet just LOVES our effluents! It's like a puppy dog eager for our table scraps! How cute!

Anyway, be prepared for the latest meme, that satellite evidence shows biodiversity increasing. 

Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I know, that isn't something that can be determined by remote sensing at all. Nevertheless, you haven't heard the last of this, alas.

Update: A commenter on Atmoz points out that biodiversity, normally defined as the number of genetic patterns in existence, can't really increase significantly on these time scales at all. D'oh. Right. Which means we are probably pretty safe from this particular nonsense catching on.

That said, here (emphasis added) is the quote from Lawrence Solomon's article:
As summarized in a report last month, released along with a petition signed by 32,000 U. S. scientists who vouched for the benefits of CO2: "Higher CO2 enables plants to grow faster and larger and to live in drier climates. Plants provide food for animals, which are thereby also enhanced. The extent and diversity of plant and animal life have both increased substantially during the past half-century."


Anonymous said...

The Zoological Society of London, amongst others (see Guardian, Independent), published findings last month of studies of the populations of ~ 1,500 seperate species of land, marine and freshwater vertebrates. The study concluded that the overall populations had declined by ~ 27% in the last three decades. "such a sharp fall was 'completely unprecedented in terms of human history'."

The study didn't finger climate change as the (sole) culprit, but it is pretty hard to reconcile this with the idea that "biodiversity" is increasing (although I note that Solomon doesn't explicitly say this.)

W.r.t. Solomon's that some fraction of the CO2 from emissions is being absorbed by the oceans and land... maybe Solomon could read this piece by Carl Safina, Carbon’s Burden on the World’s Oceans:
"The direct link between increased carbon dioxide concentrations in oceans and increased internal stress on marine creatures is largely absent from the “climate change” dialogue. It used to be enough to say “global warming” was the problem. But increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — and in oceans — have been causing more varied and faster effects than previously imagined. In fact, massive changes underway in the ocean are not captured with the word “climate.”...

...So hear this: It is not just about climate. It is, and always has been, about the carbon. We need to place carbon back in the center of the equation. From atmosphere to ocean to cell, the carbon burden is the problem. It’s the heaviest load anyone’s ever placed on an unsuspecting planet, and the more we learn, the more its dimensions appear ever more staggering."
and he details a multitude of specific negative effects increased carbon is having in the marine biosphere.

As well, I think Dano has a long list of papers that more directly question the simple CO2 = yummy plant food connection...

Anonymous said...

I assume you mean that we could have 100 times more of snail A. Not snails B, C, and D. Or snails, frogs, turtles etc.

Makes sense to me. Increase does not assume diversity. And if I understand your point, it does seem that biodiversity would be nearly impossible to tell by remote measure.

In fact, it may be the most difficult thing to measure period.

Michael Tobis said...

Sure, but there's more to it.

Rapid change is bad for (generally rare) niche species and good for (generally common) opportunistic species, so decreases biodiversity in general.

There's little doubt that the world's genetic palette is shrinking drastically.

Actually, global biomass, at least on land, is mostly about locally dominant tree species.

crf said...

I don't think it is to the point of these particular satellite measures, but I don't think it is out of the question to try to measure biodiversity by satellite. Some satellites can measure things like tree cover, and how light is being absorbed, and make guesses as to their species. Once this is known, the forest types being observed in the image can be guessed at (likely accurately). Knowing the type and distribution of forests in an area, one might guess, using past knowledge about diversity in those particular habitats, at how diversity has changed.

Craig Allen said...

It should be pretty obvious to even the dumbest blogger that it is entirely possible to decrease biodiversity while increasing biomass. For example, you could pour loads of effluent into a coral a coral reef system, causing it to collapse and be replaced by a low diversity, high biomass algal dominated system. The same sort of thing is happening with wetlands, lake and rivers the world over. Take a trip to your local sewerage works, lots of biomass generating microbes brewing in those ponds, but hardly an improvement on the wetlands that may once occupied the site.

Satellites can detect biomass in a crude sense - by registering the wavelengths given off by chlorophyll for example - but there is no way that they can distinguish species or diversity.

Craig Allen said...

Re my last comment:

One of my examples was a poor choice; the microbes in sewerage treatment plants are of course for the most part not photosynthetic and break down organic matter to release C02 and methane, rather than creating biomass by fixing CO2.

Dano said...

The QuickBird satellite allows you to detect PAR from infrared off of plant leaves. You can get fairly accurate tree and turf ID from this bird. I've used it on a couple of projects now.

But there's no way of using tree canopy as a proxy for biodiversity. Watch your local paper for the next bioblitz - a wan attempt at a biodiversity census. A far cry from what is truly needed, but at least we're not stumbling blindly forward. Heavily blinkered, not blind.



Dano said...

I tracked down the paper Solomon uses. It doesn't say what he says it says.

Big surprise, I know.

It's this one, and they conclude:

However, NPP increased by more than 1% per year in Amazonia alone, which accounts for 42% of the global NPP increase between 1982 and 1999. This result cannot be explained solely by CO2 fertilization. We suggest that increases in solar radiation, owing to declining cloud cover in these predominantly radiation-limited forests, is the most likely explanation for the increased tropical NPP (28, 29). Because there is no evidence of trends in rainfall or streamflows (30) concurrent with these declines in cloud cover in this region, it is likely that rainfall patterns have changed. (page 1562, footnotes omitted)

That tactic was like the old Greening Earth Society tactics. Or see-oh-too on a bad day.