Coby Beck may be a software developer specializing in Artificial Intelligence applications, but that's not what The Reef Tank thinks is the coolest thing about him! Here at TRT, we've been following his blog A Few Things Ill Considered, quite rapturously because of its intriguing climate change spin. So when we got the chance to ask him a few questions and turn that climate change spin into one with a marine science angle, we jumped at the chance!
Here's our Q&A with software engineer and science blogger Coby Beck.
You say you’re a software engineer by trade and training, but your science enthusiasm is as an amateur consumer. Explain what you mean by that implication.
Well, of course the most important reason I like to be clear on that point to anyone reading my writing, is to avoid misrepresenting myself, even if it is only by the omission of that disclaimer. It is very easy for people to assume that because I write on a scientific topic, and often in a bit technical terms, that I must be a scientist, so I try to ensure that this misunderstanding does not occur.
But another reason I like to emphasis that point to my readers is because I want the topic of global climate change to be accessible to a lay audience. If people see that I can grasp the basic science behind the issues without spending the years it takes to get a relevant PhD, then they will realize that they can too. Whenever society has to grapple with the implications of a scientific topic, it is essential that it becomes as accessible as possible. I hope to show that since I was able to learn about it as a non-scientist, anyone else can too, and I want to share the work I have done to make it as easy as possible for others to learn.
What do you blog about climate change and why do you choose to call it your niche?
I generally comment on climate coverage developments in the mainstream media and other popular or high quality climate blogs. I subscribe to RSS feeds of many scientific organizations as well, so I can alert readers to research developments or the latest measurements. I call it my niche because even though I have a broad range of interests from politics, to arts, to other scientific topics, I try to focus my blog only on climate change related issues. Both because it is what I am most familiar with, but also because it lets me be more thorough on the one topic.
How does climate change/global warming affect marine life in your opinion? What are the ramifications?
I think the impacts of climate change on marine life will be quite profound. The atmosphere and ocean are very closely linked, both in terms of temperature and chemical composition. Even though humans tend to focus on warming over land, warming in the oceans is just as real and just as disruptive, possibly more so. But perhaps worse than the warming we are causing is the change in pH of ocean waters. As CO2 in the atmosphere rises, so does the carbonic acid content of seawater. Most scientific estimates indicate that about a third of all human CO2 emissions find their way into the oceans. Marine biochemistry is very sensitive to these relatively small changes in pH and the potential impacts are as severe as they are little understood.
Does it affect corals? How?
Corals are vulnerable to both major oceanic impacts of climate change, warming and acidification. Acidification inhibits the construction of the coral superstructures, a process called calcification. A very recent study in Science found that growth rates in the Great Barrier Reef have fallen by 14% since the 1990’s, a development unprecedented in the last 400 years. The attribution is not clear, and is likely not singular, but acidification is a leading candidate cause.
Corals are vulnerable to temperature changes as well and have been experiencing remarkable increases in what are called coral bleaching events. When the temperature rises too high, part of the symbiotic relationship that builds coral reefs breaks down. The algae that lives in the coral tissue and gives it its color does not tolerate the higher water temperature. When it is gone, the corals lose their brilliant variety of colors, hence the term bleaching. If the algae does not return soon enough the reef will die. This has been happening in the last decades at an unprecedented rate worldwide, both bleaching events and reef deaths.
You’ve already written about How To Talk to A Climate Skeptic. Let’s say you’ve encountered a marine life enthusiast or reef hobbyist who just doesn’t understand why education about global warming is so important. What would you tell the person, citing marine life/his aquatic hobby as examples?
I think I would emphasize for them just how intertwined the ocean and the atmosphere are and point out the dangers of ocean acidification. What I mentioned above is not a well-known fact, striking though it is, that a third of all fossil fuel CO2 emissions go almost immediately into the oceans. The dangers to coral reefs are crystal clear and should alarm anyone who admires the diversity and beauty of this fascinating biological phenomenon.
You say there are geologic historical precedents for what we are doing to the ocean these days (ocean favors adaptation, geoengineering over mitigation in dealing with GW) Explain why you are not reassured about ocean life.
There exists in geological history an event that appears to be a very close analogue to what is happening today, though of course the anthropogenic cause is not the same. This event is called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM for short. It occurred around 55 million years ago and shows up in temperature reconstructions from ancient ocean sediments as a very sudden and sharp spike of around 6oC.
The sediment records also reveal an extreme acidification event in the oceans that took at least 80,000 years to recover from. The cause was apparently a massive release of methane clathrates from the ocean floor, maybe triggered by volcanic action and then further releases triggered by the resulting enhanced greenhouse warming that followed. This is a dire warning for us, not only for what our emissions will do directly, but for the possibility of triggering similar methane hydrate eruptions.
Ocean life at the time suffered a drastic extinction event, as did life on land to a lesser extent.
What is your opinion on ocean acidification and what can we do about it?
My major concern about ocean acidification is its lack of public awareness. Problems that are not in the public spotlight are rarely dealt with effectively. This issue of course goes hand in hand with climate change, but some of the possible policy approaches that are on the climate conference table do no good for ocean acidification. Without a keen awareness of the acidification problem we may head down the wrong path. Specifically, the adaptation approach to climate change, i.e. learning as a society to deal with increased droughts, moving coastlines, stronger tropical cyclones, loss of biodiversity etc will not help coral reefs and marine life. Similarly, geoengineering schemes aimed at reducing temperatures (like orbiting sun shades or aerosol production) will not stop the rise of CO2 in the air or in the oceans. The only thing we can do to prevent this scenario is educate. If people understand the totality of our challenge, we will not leave half of it unsolved.
What is your opinion on aquariums and the aquarium hobby?
I must confess upfront that I am not familiar with the issues around the aquarium hobby. I have personally always loved them, mind you, as a spectator only! But I suppose as long as the collection of specimens is done in an environmentally sensitive way without threatening populations, I don’t see the harm. I can imagine that when money becomes involved, people would do unethical things to profit from well meaning but naïve consumers. We must all be vigilante about where our dollars ultimately go.
Can someone be an aquarium hobbyist and still be considered a marine conservationist?
I do not see a conflict in these two roles as long as the ethical and environmental concerns are not forgotten.