Air guns used for marine oil and gas exploration are loud enough to affect humpback whales up to 3km away, potentially affecting their migration patterns, according to our new research.
Whales’ communication depends on loud sounds, which can travel very efficiently over distances of tens of kilometres in the underwater environment. But our study, published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology, shows that they are affected by other loud ocean noises produced by humans.
As part of the BRAHSS (Behavioural Response of Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys) project, we and our colleagues measured humpback whales’ behavioural responses to air guns like those used in seismic surveys carried out by the offshore mining industry.
Air guns are devices towed behind seismic survey ships that rapidly release compressed air into the ocean, producing a loud bang. The sound travels through the water and into the sea bed, bouncing off various layers of rock, oil or gas. The faint echoes are picked up by sensors towed by the same vessel.
During surveys, the air guns are fired every 10-15 seconds to develop a detailed geological picture of the ocean floor in the area. Although they are not intended to harm whales, there has been concern for many years about the potential impacts of these loud, frequent sounds.
Although it sounds like a simple experiment to expose whales to air guns and see what they do, it is logistically difficult. For one thing, the whales may respond to the presence of the ship towing the air guns, rather than the air guns themselves. Another problem is that humpback whales tend to show a lot of natural behavioural variability, making it difficult to tease out the effect of the air gun and ship.
There is also the question of whether any response by the whales is influenced more by the loudness of the air gun, or how close the air blast is to the whale (although obviously the two are linked). Previous studies have assumed that the response is driven primarily by loudness, but we also looked at the effect of proximity.
We used a small air gun and a cluster of guns, towed behind a vessel through the migratory path of more than 120 groups of humpback whales off Queensland’s sunshine coast. By having two different sources, one louder than the other, we were able to fire air blasts of different perceived loudness from the same distance.
We found that whales slowed their migratory speed and deviated around the vessel and the air guns. This response was influenced by a combination of received level and proximity; both were necessary. The whales were affected up to 3km away, at sound levels over 140 decibels, and deviated from their path by about 500 metres. Within this “zone”, whales were more likely to avoid the air guns.
Each tested group moved as one, but our analysis did not include the effects on different group types, such as a female with calf versus a group of adults, for instance.
Our results suggest that when regulating to reduce the impact of loud noise on whale behaviour, we need to take into account not just how loud the noise is, but how far away it is. More research is needed to find out how drastically the whales’ migration routes change as a result of ocean mining noise.
This case is the first in the world to pursue a bank over failing to report climate change risks. However, it’s building on a trend of similar actions against energy companies in the United States and United Kingdom.
The CBA case was filed on August 8, 2017 by advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of two longstanding Commonwealth Bank shareholders. The case argues that climate change creates material financial risks to the bank, its business and customers, and they failed in their duty to disclose those risks to investors.
This represents an important shift. Conventionally, climate change has been treated by reporting companies merely as a matter of corporate social responsibility; now it’s affecting the financial bottom line.
What do banks need to disclose?
When banks invest in projects or lend money to businesses, they have an obligation to investigate and report to shareholders potential problems that may prevent financial success. (Opening a resort in a war zone, for example, is not an attractive proposition.)
However, banks may now have to take into account the risks posed by climate change. Australia’s top four banks are heavily involved in fossil-fuel intensive projects, but as the world moves towards renewable energy those projects may begin to look dubious.
As the G20’s Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures recently reported, climate risks can be physical (for instance, when extreme weather events affect property or business operations) or transition risks (the effect of new laws and policies designed to mitigate climate change, or market changes as economies transition to renewable and low-emission technology).
For example, restrictions on coal mining may result in these assets being “stranded,” meaning they become liabilities rather than assets on company balance sheets. Similarly, the rise of renewable energy may reduce the life span, and consequently the value, of conventional power generation assets.
Companies who rely on the exploitation of fossil fuels face increasing transition risks. So too do the banks that lend money to, and invest in, these projects. It is these types of risks that are at issue in the case against CBA.
What did the CBA know about climate risk?
The claim filed by the CBA shareholders alleges the bank has contravened two central provisions of the Corporations Act 2001:
companies must include a financial report within the annual report which gives a “true and fair” view of its financial position and performance, and
companies must include a director’s report that allows shareholders to make an “informed assessment” of the company’s operations, financial position, business strategies and prospects.
The shareholders argue that the CBA knew – or ought to have known – that climate-related risks could seriously disrupt the bank’s performance. Therefore, investors should have been told the CBA’s strategies for managing those risks so they could make an informed decision about their investment.
While the CBA case represents the first time worldwide that a financial institution has been sued for misleading disclosure of climate risk, the litigation builds on a broader global trend. There have been a number of recent legal actions in the United States, seeking to enforce corporate risk disclosure obligations in relation to climate change:
Energy giant Exxon Mobile is currently under investigation by the Attorneys General of New York and California over the company’s disclosure practices. At the same time, an ongoing shareholder class action alleges that Exxon Mobile failed to disclose internal reports about the risks climate change posed to their oil and gas reserves, and valued those assets artificially high.
Similar pathways are being pursued in the UK, where regulatory complaints have been made about the failure of major oil and gas companies SOCO International and Cairn Energy to disclose climate-related risks, as required by law.
In this context, the CBA case represents a widening of litigation options to include banks, as well as energy companies. It is also the first attempt in Australia to use the courts to clarify how public listed companies should disclose climate risks in their annual reports.
Potential for more litigation
This global trend suggests more companies are likely to face these kinds of lawsuits in the future. Eminent barrister Noel Hutley noted in October 2016 that many prominent Australian companies, including banks that lend to major fossil fuel businesses, are not adequately disclosing climate change risks.
Hutley predicted that it’s likely only a matter of time before we see a company director sued for failing to perceive or react to a forseeable climate-related risk. The CBA case is the first step towards such litigation.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram could be a rich source of free information for scientists tasked with monitoring the health of coral reefs and other environmental assets, our new research suggests.
Ecosystems are under pressure all over the world, and monitoring their health is crucial. But scientific monitoring is very expensive, requiring a great deal of expertise, sophisticated instruments, and detailed analysis, often in specialised laboratories.
This expense – and the need to educate and engage the public – have helped to fuel the rise of citizen science, in which non-specialist members of the public help to make observations and compile data.
Our research suggests that the wealth of information posted on social media could be tapped in a similar way. Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.
Smartphones and mobile internet connections have made it much easier for citizens to help gather scientific information. Examples of environmental monitoring apps include WilddogScan, Marine Debris Tracker, OakMapper and Journey North, which monitors the movements of Monarch butterflies.
Meanwhile, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr host vast amounts of information. While not posted explicitly for environmental monitoring, social media posts from a place like the Great Barrier Reef can contain useful information about the health (or otherwise) of the environment there.
Twitter is a good resource for this type of “human sensing”, because data are freely available and the short posts are relatively easy to process. This approach could be particularly promising for popular places that are visited by many people.
In our research project, we downloaded almost 300,000 tweets posted from the Great Barrier Reef between July 1, 2016 and March 17, 2017.
After filtering for relevant keywords such as “fish”, “coral”, “turtle” or “bleach”, we cut this down to 13,344 potentially useful tweets. Some 61% of these tweets had geographic coordinates that allow spatial analysis. The heat map below shows the distribution of our tweets across the region.
Twitter is known as place for sharing instantaneous opinions, perceptions and experiences. It is therefore reasonable to assume that if someone posts a tweet about the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns they are talking about a nearby part of the reef, so we can use the tweet’s geocoordinates as indicators of the broad geographic area to which the post is referring. Images associated with such tweets would help to verify this assumption.
Our analysis provides several interesting insights. First, keyword frequencies highlight what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef are most talked about, including activities such as diving (876 mentions of “dive” or “diving”, and 300 of “scuba”), features such as “beaches” (2,909 times), and favoured species such as “coral” (434) and “turtles” (378).
The tweets also reveal what is not talked about. For example, the word “bleach” appeared in only 94 of our sampled tweets. Furthermore, our results highlighted what aspects of the Great Barrier Reef people are most happy with, for example sailing and snorkelling, and which elements had negative connotations (such as the number of tweets expressing concern about dugong populations).
Casting the net wider
Clearly, this pool of data was large enough to undertake some interesting analysis. But generally speaking, the findings are more reflective of people’s experiences than of specific aspects of the environment’s health.
The quality of tweet information with regard to relevant incidents or changes could, however, be improved over time, for example with the help of a designated hashtag system that invites people to post their specific observations.
Similar alert systems and hashtags have been developed for extreme events and emergency situations, for example by the New South Wales Fire Service.
Tweets also often contain photographs – as do Instagram and Flickr posts – which can carry useful information. An image-based system, particularly in cases where photos carry time and location stamps, would help to address the lack of expertise of the person posting the image, because scientists can analyse and interpret the raw images themselves.
The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, already extensively monitored. But social media monitoring could be particularly beneficial in countries where more professional monitoring is unaffordable. Popular destinations in the Pacific or Southeast Asia, for example, could tap into social media to establish systems that simultaneously track visitors’ experiences as well as the health of the environment.
While it is early days and more proof-of-concept research is needed, the technological possibilities of Big Data, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence will almost certainly make socially shared content a useful data source for a wide range of environmental monitoring in the future.
The Earth is home to millions of species, but you wouldn’t know it from the media’s obsession with only a few dozen animals like tigers and gorillas.
This narrow focus makes the most of popular fascination with large and cute creatures. Conservationists take advantage of these nonhuman celebrities to raise awareness about important issues and to seek donations to help save endangered animals. Given the multi-billion-dollar funding shortfall for nature conservation, public support is crucial.
Very popular species attract the most wildlife conservation funding. But what about the Nimba otter shrew, the Cuban greater funnel-eared bat or other threatened yet obscure species? And don’t all imperiled green spaces, not just the homes of snow leopards and orangutans, deserve attention?
Conventional wisdom counsels sticking with the old approach to fundraising, and conservationists tend to see animals like bats and snakes as lost causes. As conservation scientists, we wanted to discover whether marketing could perhaps rescue these species. If companies can successfully sell mops and other humdrum products, why can’t conservationists raise money to save the unglamorous giant golden mole – even if it looks like a small cushion with a nose poking out of it? We sought the answer to this question by measuring the links between marketing efforts and conservation fundraising success.
These campaigns are very different. WWF-US raises money for a broad set of projects, addressing global issues from climate change and illegal wildlife trade to forest and ocean conservation. The EDGE campaign we analyzed focuses on saving 100 threatened mammal species.
Given these contrasting approaches, we wanted to see if and when marketing makes a difference. To do this we also had to account for whether the species used for fundraising mattered. This involved measuring an animal’s “appeal,” which depends on lots of factors, such as whether it is cute, large or famous. To see which animals were the most appealing, we showed 850 conservation supporters a random selection of the animal photos featured on the WWF-US and EDGE websites and asked these volunteers to rank the photos.
Let’s first consider WWF-US, which raises money through animal “adoptions.” When people donate, they signal their support for the well-known species. In return they get a stuffed toy, photos of the animals and adoption certificates. But the money WWF-US raised funds projects that benefit more than just the “adopted” animals.
We found two factors influenced WWF-US donors’ choices: the animals’ appeal and the degree of the threat of their extinction. Marketing efforts played no role. No matter how they were described or presented, the most appealing species always drew more donations. This was probably because people already knew and liked them.
The EDGE program raises money in a different way. It supports some universally familiar animals, like the Asian elephant, but many of the species it helps are less appealing to humans, including a variety of rats and bats. Each of these species is shown on their website, so people can click on a link to find out more and then donate.
We found that while people were generally more interested in donating to appealing species, the amount of marketing also made a difference. The animals EDGE actively promoted fared better with potential donors – including some homely ones. Similarly, pitches for the species shown higher up on EDGE’s site got more donors interested in funding the animals’ conservation.
EDGE’s track record suggests that using marketing techniques to raise money for wildlife conservation could increase donations aimed at helping less popular species. To estimate the difference that marketing could make in this regard, we created a mathematical model based on our analysis of the EDGE data. This is an equation that predicts donations based on a species’ appeal (which is fixed) and whether it was promoted by EDGE or shown high up on the website (which we could vary).
Partnering with an EDGE staff member, we then modeled different fundraising scenarios for the 10 most appealing and 10 least appealing animals, as rated by our conservation volunteers. With no marketing effort, our model predicted that the most appealing species would raise 10 times more money than the least appealing animals. This was in line with what we expected and supported the WWF-US strategy.
However, things changed when we modeled the impact from EDGE’s marketing efforts. If the group highlighted the least appealing species by making them prominent on its website, our model predicted a 26-fold increase in donations for those specific animals. This suggests that charities could raise conservation funds for species like bats and rodents, if they tried hard enough.
Our findings indicate that conservationists have more options than they may realize to raise money to aid wildlife.
When can marketing boost donations?
But when should they fundraise for more obscure species? The answer depends on how threatened the animal is, how much help it already gets, the cost of saving it and the chances of the project succeeding. When conservationists focus only on saving elephants, rhinos or other popular species, they often overlook these considerations.
That doesn’t mean WWF-US should end its focus on familiar animals. Since the money it raises funds broad projects that benefit more than just the “adopted” animals, catering to widespread fixations with particular species makes sense.
To be sure, our research did not measure whether marketing efforts pay off by increasing donations overall. But including more kinds of species in a campaign may boost donations – especially for endangered frogs and tarantulas or other underappreciated animals – and even plants.
It might also increase the total number of species in the public eye, highlighting the many ways everyone can help save wildlife.
Conservationists often complain animals that are important to save can get ignored. Our results suggest that they should stop complaining and start marketing.
The graphic containing endangered animals in this article that was originally published on June 21, 2017 was corrected on July 5, 2017. The new version contains the top five animals for EDGE’s fundraising. The old version misidentified and featured the other five in the group’s top 10.
Climate change is not something that will just go away. It is already affecting global biodiversity, food security and human migration, and the situation is not expected to improve soon. Rising temperatures and regular extreme events will produce new selection pressures.
These will force many species to move to find more suitable conditions, or adapt. Their ability to respond to these pressures will depend on the rate and extent of change, their ability to adapt to new conditions or their ability to move away. Understanding how biodiversity responds to climate change requires an interdisciplinary perspective, combining ecological, molecular and environmental approaches.
As part of our work to establish a new way of studying biodiversity, we developed an integrated framework to help guide conservation efforts by identifying wildlife populations under threat from climate change. We assign levels of risk to populations based on their exposure to changing climate conditions, their sensitivity due to genetic variation and their ability to alter their range (range shift potential).
We show how our approach can be applied in a bat species, the grey long-eared bat, Plecotus austriacus. This bat is one of the rarest mammals in the UK, with a population estimated at less than 1,000 individuals. This bat has also been in decline across Europe. Our previous work showed that its geographic distribution is limited by climate, and current patterns of genetic variation were shaped by changes to the climate. We collected wing biopsy samples for genetic analysis from eight populations in the Iberian Peninsula and two populations in England – the southern and northern edges of their range.
We used ecological modelling and climate data to look at where changes are likely to be most extreme. And to identify climate-driven genetic adaptations we looked at genomic data. This allowed us to assess which populations are likely to be most sensitive to the effects of climate change. Finally, we use a combination of genetic and geographic data to predict the ability of populations to track suitable conditions in the future.
We show that while conditions in the UK could actually improve for the bat, populations in southern Europe that hold the key to the survival of the species as a whole could be devastated. We identified those likely to be most sensitive to future changes because they do not contain enough climate-adaptive variation.
We also looked at landscape connectivity to show populations that will become isolated in the future. As the suitability of the environmental changes, the movement of individuals will be affected. This will limit the ability of populations to move to more suitable areas, and limit the chances of spreading adaptive genetic variation into populations that are at risk.
We identified one population, along the eastern coast of Spain, as being high risk. It will be exposed to high changes in the suitability of the climate, has a low levels of climate-adaptive genetic variation and will experience limited landscape connectivity.
We identified two other populations in the central regions of Spain that are medium-high risk. Despite high exposure to changes and limited connectivity, they have a higher frequency of adaptive genetic variation. In contrast, populations along the Atlantic coast of the peninsula and in the UK are at lower risk from climate change, because they will experience less change in the suitability of the climate, and keep higher landscape connectivity.
Implications for Conservation
Assigning levels of threat to populations can help us to set conservation priorities. Conservation management can focus on rescuing high risk populations. This could be by moving of the population to more suitable areas, or moving individuals with the right adaptive variation into the population.
But such intense management is likely to be costly and irrelevant when considering the number of species likely to be in need of these measures. Alternatively, we could focus on reducing threats to medium and medium-high risk populations by increasing landscape connectivity, this would allow range shifts and the spread of adaptive genetic variation.
Long-lived, slow-reproducing species with smaller population sizes are unlikely to adapt to climate change fast enough by spreading new mutations. They will depend on the spread of adaptive genetic variation caused by the movement of individuals between groups. Therefore a better understanding of movement processes and landscape connectivity is needed for predicting population persistence under climate change.
The framework we developed can be widely applied to other population groups and ecological systems to help decide how to focus conservation efforts to help species survive.
The best way of managing trees and forests for climate change and accounting for contributions of forests and forestry activities in carbon budgets remains hotly contested. Forests can either take up carbon dioxide (CO₂) or release more CO₂ into the atmosphere. Wood can substitute fossil fuels or energy-intensive materials, but forests are also large carbon reservoirs that add emission peaks if disturbed.
The atmospheric concentration of CO₂ has increased from a pre-industrial 280ppm (volume parts per million) to just above 407ppm – and will reach 550ppm by 2050. As the main greenhouse gas, CO₂ drives human-induced climate change. Most global CO₂ emissions come from burning fossil fuels, but net deforestation still adds about five billion metric tons of CO₂ per year.
Global deforestation is mainly determined by large-scale clearing of tropical forests, still progressing at some 3m hectares a year. In contrast, European forests have been cleared over many centuries and are now expanding, having grown by about 11m hectares since 1990. Regrowing forests on deforested land creates carbon sinks which remove CO₂ from the atmosphere.
Wood can reduce carbon emissions by being substituted for materials such as cement or metal, and replacing fossil fuels in energy generation. The CO₂ released when wood is burnt can be recouped by planting new trees, making wood a renewable source of energy.
Accounting for forests and forestry activities in carbon balance sheets is a controversial task. For example, the amount of timber harvesting that can be seen as sustainable is regularly contested, even among European countries. The increasing use of wood fuels in energy generation is also creating debatable outcomes.
Such controversies often boil down to a choice between locking up the existing carbon reservoirs in trees and forests, or growing forests into wood products that replace fossil fuel-intensive alternatives.
Young, rapidly growing forests remove atmospheric carbon quickly, but have relatively small carbon reservoirs. Ageing forests capture carbon at decreasing rates, but build up large carbon reservoirs in biomass and soils. When an older forest is logged, not only the wood is removed, but carbon from unused biomass and soil is also released back into the atmosphere, creating a “carbon debt”. Especially large, old trees store most carbon, but are often over 100 years old. Repayment of the carbon debt may, therefore, take a long time.
Theoretically, older forests reach an equilibrium, when carbon taken up into new growth is balanced by carbon released through decomposition processes. But this has been proved wrong. Even 800-year-old forests still continue to take up carbon, and, perhaps more surprisingly, individual large, old trees maintain high growth rates, too. Old forests are not only large carbon reservoirs worth maintaining, but actively continue to capture atmospheric carbon.
Protecting older forests
There are risks. First, we do not know for how long mature forests will continue to soak up additional CO₂ as atmospheric concentrations increase further and push forest ecosystems even faster into unchartered territory. To study mature forests in a future atmosphere requires large-scale experiments such as the Free Air CO₂ Enrichment (FACE) programme initiated by the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research. Only such elaborate (and rather expensive) technological marvels can supply the real-world data needed to answer this question.
Second, large-scale disturbances such as bushfires, drought dieback or pest epidemics, stop trees from taking up more carbon and also mobilise carbon from soils and decaying or burning trees. For example, forests in British Columbia, Canada, have turned from a carbon sink to a net carbon source following large-scale outbreaks of a native pine beetle. Very little is known about how environmental changes and rising CO₂ affect the vulnerability of trees and the resilience of forest ecosystems.
On the upside, in a country with low forest cover such as the UK, any sensible reforestation (avoiding bogs) is beneficial for carbon balance. Yet managing forests solely for their carbon benefit would miss the point. Especially older trees and forests provide a host of services, including biodiversity, flood mitigation, clean water and human well-being benefits.
Any policy incentives must aim at balanced outcomes for all forest goods and services. Incentives that commodify one service but not others, too often create unintended consequences. Where forests are concerned, such mistakes are expensive, because it takes a long time to reverse adverse effects on old trees and forests.