livelihoods

Coral Reefs in Crisis: Finding Nemo May Become a lot Tougher

By Tara Haelle If your food sources vanished tomorrow, how long would it take you to starve to death?

What if your diet until this sudden starvation already lacked the nutrients to keep your bones strong and healthy? What if you were already suffering from the flu, or a more serious disease? It's impossible to say definitively how long your starving, weakened, diseased body would hold out, but death would be knocking.

Such is the state of our coral reefs today. The triple threat of coral bleaching (which causes starvation), higher prevalence of disease and more acid in the ocean (inhibiting corals' skeletal growth) calls into question how long our reefs can continue to survive. Or, at least how long they’ll look as we envision them in our Jacques Cousteau-inspired imaginations: gorgeous orange and yellow fans waving beside barrels of purple and bowls of blue, with Nemo and friends darting throughout the nooks and crannies that house the crustaceans we order at Red Lobster.

We must remember the brooding fact that this ecosystem’s decline contributes to ours as well—unless we act. The public needs better media reporting and guidance to address the problem; we lack both at the moment, but both can be remedied.

Thousands of miles of coral reefs are starving; many will recover, but in their weakened state, they’ll become more susceptible to the diseases proliferating as sea surface temperatures rise. Since coral is, literally, the bedrock of marine ecosystems, this situation signals trouble for oceanic life and people.

Coral reef degradation is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Not because reefs themselves will vanish one day but because the ways global warming, pollution and habitat destruction are affecting the reefs forewarn of the changes that will eventually reach our backyards—literally. Yet the complexity of these problems makes it a struggle for scientists to pinpoint what will happen first, when, where and how. It's like playing Whack-a-Mole on a football field littered with land mines.

"As you remove certain portions of the coral reef environment, the rippling effect starts occurring and before long some species, whether we like them on our dinner table or in our aquarium, will start disappearing," said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director of NOAA Office of Marine Sanctuaries. "In 50 years, we're going to be in serious trouble if we don't make some changes. We're going to see losses in coastal and marine environments, perhaps, even failures in fisheries stocks and so on."

Those losses translate into economic casualties as well. Ross Hill, a marine biologist at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, quoted one study that puts the number of people worldwide directly or indirectly relying on coral reefs at 500 million. That's half a billion people who could lose their livelihoods. While dying coral reefs might feel remote in the dead of a Minnesota winter, the worldwide financial collapse of 2007 painfully revealed how interconnected the economies of our world now are. The ripple effects of an economic crisis in a nation like Fiji—surrounded by coral reefs—matter to us in the U.S.

"You don't want the millions of people who live in low-lying areas of the tropics to end up as ecological refugees as the coral reefs die and the income from tourism and their food disappears," said Judy Lang, the Scientific Coordinator of the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment Project.

Yet potentially irrevocable changes in coral reefs could lead to these consequences if we don't address the causes of coral bleaching, disease and ocean acidification. With the situation so dire, why isn't the message getting across? And what can we, many of us far from a coastline much less a reef, do about it?

The first answer is twofold: one, the media does a poor job of explaining what's really going on and what to do about it; two, it's hard to motivate people about issues so seemingly remote, in both miles and years. Reporters must clearly explain what's causing the degradation of our coral reefs and why it matters.

Let's start with causes: 99 percent of marine and climate scientists agree the number one cause of all three attacks on coral reefs is climate change from increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But as Ray Hayes, a member of the Global Coral Reef Alliance Executive Board and Professor Emeritus of Howard University College of Medicine, points out, "To look at elevated temperature as a sole causative agent [of bleaching] would be a mistake." Additional stresses on coral include land-based sources of pollution, habitat loss and overfishing.

Meanwhile, the ocean has been absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into carbonic acid, weakening the ability of corals, crustaceans and mollusks to build their skeletons and shells. The cumulative effect on the reef resembles our own bodies' reaction to excessive stress: "The corals are overly stressed and diseases start breaking out," Causey explained. Indeed, diseases have proliferated in the past forty years, according to Lang.

"Bleaching," so named because the coral turns bright white, occurs when stressed coral expels the food-producing algae that contribute to its vibrant colors. Increased water temperature can trigger bleaching: coral-algae symbiosis flourishes in 78 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit; even a few degrees higher can spark a bleaching event. Sustained bleaching is essentially starvation, during which coral halts all inessential biological processes, including reproduction and skeleton-building, to conserve energy. Too often, bleached coral dies, and within hours brown, green and red algae grow over its skeleton, potentially preventing coral re-growth and, irrevocably, altering the reef environment.

"Coral reefs are nurseries for a number of economically significant seafood sources, such as lobsters and crabs and shrimp," Hayes said. "All those organisms we think of as being nutritionally supportive to a human population could be at risk as the reefs change."

In 1998, during the worst worldwide bleaching event on record, sixteen percent of the world's shallow-water reefs died. During another bad bleaching event in 2005, 80 percent of Caribbean coral bleached and as much as 40 percent died in the eastern Caribbean. According to Tom Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, 2010 was the hottest year in history—and one of the worst coral bleaching years ever. Goreau said he watched almost all the corals in Thailand die over the course of a few weeks.

Again, where are the screaming headlines to wake people up?

First, it's hard to personalize something like bleaching that’s only visible underwater at certain times of the year. Ocean acidification, Causey points out, presents a tougher hurdle: "We're not going to see ocean chemistry changes; we're just going to see the results after it's almost too late."

Kris Wilson, an environmental journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said reporters must "transcend the journalism of proximity," a major factor in what gets reported. "A journalist has to take something abstract and bring it to a level to feel it's a part of their readers' lives," he said.

For example, telling readers about drugs like Ziconotide—a cone shell product recently approved as a non-addictive painkiller and used to treat Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy—emphasizes the value of oceanic ecosystems. "A whole heap of medicines come out of animals that live on reefs," said Hill.

Yet, said Lang, we exacerbate the hazards reefs face with our high-energy consumption and with waste ranging from pharmaceuticals and fertilizers to household products and caffeine.

Another flaw in coral reef reportage arises from fundamental differences between scientific thinking and journalistic storytelling. The scientific method requires scientists to accept uncertainty in much of what they do; even gravity is still a theory.

"Science is long-term, incremental, always evolving," Wilson said. "Scientists are very cautious about their findings." But reporters and readers often want certainty and immediacy—rarely compatible with an issue like climate change. "We have to become comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty and still be willing to act," Wilson said.

According to Causey, this culture clash even affects how scientists talk to reporters. "It makes them reluctant sometimes because they think it's going to taint their scientific credentials if they go beyond what is or is not certain," he said. "We can't remain in stalemate because people are afraid of speaking beyond what they're certain of."

Most regrettably, however, reporters often leave readers feeling powerless: artificial he-said-she-said stories belie scientific consensus on the issue, or reporters sound doomsday trumpets without informing readers how to take action.

A reliance on "objectivity" over "balance" can distort how readers understand an issue. "Objectivity," the classic "he-said-and-she-disagreed" model Wilson describes, only presents two opposing points of view on a topic. "Balance" puts those views in context, quantifying and qualifying the voices on both sides.

Wilson adds that context is essential. "If a person is an outlier," he said, "you're obligated to tell readers the weight of his opinions." Wilson points out that prominent global warming skeptic Patrick Michaels receives funding from Western Fuels Association—this doesn't invalidate his opinions but it's essential to disclose.

"The more information people have, the more they realize these stories impact them, the more they'll hopefully become involved," he said. "Good environmental reporting has the potential to improve public policy and get people to understand their role in the environment and that they can really make a difference."

Of course, people must want to make a difference. "Most people are very myopic," Hayes said. "They see what's right in front of them and respond to the immediate situation and not to something that might be in the distance or somebody else's problem as they see it."

But time for them to notice is running out.

"What's happening to coral reefs is a preview of what's going to happen on a much larger scale," said Causey. "People need to recognize that although this may be happening in the tropics right now, it's not long before it's going to happen here. The coral reefs are symptomatic of the bigger climate change problems."

Hill adds that we must understand our place in the world. "We need to realize that humans are part of the global ecosystem, not above it and not immune to the effects we have on it," he said. He quoted Jacques Cousteau: "For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it."

Contributor’s Biography Tara Haelle is a photojournalism graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin and a high school journalism teacher at Texas Virtual Academy. A freelance writer and photographer in over two dozen publications, she primarily reports on health and environmental issues. As an avid scuba diver, she has a special place in her heart for sharks and coral reefs.

Building Businesses through Cleaner Cooking Fuels in Ghana

by Edward Burgess, Research Editor for The Sustainability Review For this interview, we spoke with Dr. Mark Henderson, Director of the Global Resolve project at Arizona State University. We discussed some of his latest research efforts in Ghana, Africa where he and his colleagues are working with local villages to design technologies and businesses that could improve the health and well-being of the local people and their environment.

The Sustainability Review: Dr. Henderson, you direct the Global Resolve program at Arizona State University. Can you tell us about it?

Dr. Mark Henderson: The purpose of Global Resolve is to help start sustainable economic development projects in the developing world. The way our process works is that we first visit communities in the developing world to conduct interviews and really immerse ourselves there. We want to find out what the community needs and help solve the actual problems they face, usually through the development of some technology. Ultimately, we also want to convert that technology into a business venture for the community. The hope is that the community could benefit from these ventures in several ways. First, they could get employment. Second, it could solve a problem they face. Third, they could sell the products and get income. And finally, they could be a role model for other communities and spread the business.

TSR: What projects are you currently working on?smoky cooking fuel pull-quote

MH: The two latest examples we have are the "gel fuel" and the "twig light" projects. I’ll talk about gel fuel first. In a nutshell, this idea grew out of a UN development project to use ethanol as a smokeless cooking fuel and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease by replacing wood and charcoal. The main problem with liquid ethanol is that if it spills it can spread a fire throughout the whole house. In order to make it safer and a better product, we gel it—or make it like a jelly. Have you heard of Sterno?

TSR: You mean the little cans for keeping food warm?

MH: Yes it’s similar to those but using ethanol instead of methanol. Part of the reason we want to provide a new fuel source is that smoky cooking fuel is a leading cause of death among children worldwide. If we can remove the smoke from the fuel then hopefully we can save some lives. And perhaps we can also create some businesses around producing the fuel. Right now, many villages create charcoal fuel to sell by pruning branches from trees and smoldering them. But it’s very smoky and it’s also deforesting the jungle, so it’s not a sustainable solution.

The gel fuel actually is a sustainable solution if we can use biomass that can be converted to ethanol. Corn is one example that is used in the U.S., but you can also use sugarcane and many other plants. And if we can make the process of converting cellulose more affordable then we can use any cellulosic plant—maybe grass or bamboo, which grows very fast, like a weed. Using cellulose removes the competition between food and fuel.

TSR: So the technology is not quite there yet for cellulosic ethanol?

MH: You can do it, but it’s expensive because of the special enzymes needed. We’ve just concentrated on using starchy and sugary biomass like sugarcane or corn.

TSR: In terms of sustainable harvesting, are there implications for land use if this takes off?

MH: Sure, those are definitely issues we need to consider. And there are also issues to consider for social sustainability, too. If you start creating this gel fuel, you might create unintended consequences that disturb the cultural activities in the community, and we want to avoid that. For example, women often spend several hours a day gathering wood. If we try to implement gel fuel, we have now taken that social time away from the women. That time spent gathering wood is like their "coffee klatch." Interfering with this social time would be an unintended consequence of the technology and may be a bad thing.

TSR: Are there any other unintended problems with the gel fuel technology?

MH: Another problem is that if you remove smoke from houses, the incidence of malaria increases. The smoke drives away the mosquitoes that transmit the disease and they come back if you take it away. So how do we balance this? Just think—in the U.S., how do we drive away mosquitoes from your patio?

TSR: (laughing) Well, we build a whole screen around it!

MH: Yes we do! But what else might we do?

TSR: Well, maybe we could use one of those scented candles.

MH: Right, maybe we could add something like Citronella in the gel fuel. Right now, we’re not sure if that would be toxic since the fuel is used for cooking. I always assumed it was safe, but those are things we need to find out when we think about how to minimize the disruption in the community.efficient stove pull-quote

In addition to simply producing the fuel, we have to make sure it’s an affordable solution. Nobody is going to buy it if it’s more expensive than what they already have. Right now, harvesting wood is free, which is a hard price to beat. So instead we want to see if the village could actually sell the gel fuel to the nearest larger city where people have to pay for wood and charcoal. We’re trying to arrive at economic parity with those other fuels. There is a stove being built in South Africa that is about 15% efficient, but that wasn’t quite good enough, and the gel fuel was too expensive. To help bring the price of the fuel down, we designed and built a stove that’s more than twice as efficient as the existing South African stoves. Brad Rogers, another professor in Global Resolve was in charge of this. He’s the one who really understands the thermodynamics of the gel fuel process.

TSR: Do you have any trips planned for the near future?

MH: We’re going to the village of Domeabra in Ghana in a few weeks with the new stove design. Our plan is to find out if we can produce the stoves there. We’re also going to try to ratchet up the production of gel fuel in the village and hopefully help them start a business. We are bringing a great team including myself Brad, John Takamura in design and Dan O’Neill in technological entrepreneurship and eight students and two teaching assistants. We also have five MBA students from Thunderbird School of Global Management who are staying longer to help develop a business plan.

TSR: So are they connecting the villagers with the market in the city?

MH: Yes, eventually. Right now, we’re supplying fuel to a school that we’ve partnered with in Kumasi, Ghana. The School Director works with other schools in the area, so if we can start with her, I think the village could start using the schools to create a larger business that would be successful.

TSR: How did you get started on this type of research?

MH: Well the first step was deciding to do it. I’m an engineering faculty, and so is Brad, and we had another faculty member in Global Studies (David Jacobson) and another in Business (Rajiv Sinha). We all had coffee at Starbucks one day in 2005 and asked ourselves how we could match our interests together.  We soon realized we’d all been having similar ideas about helping sustainable development in the "base of the pyramid" countries. Once we realized we’d been thinking the same thing, we began to build upon that to create a program that would not only help the countries but could also bring in other faculty and students.

TSR: Were there any breakthroughs in technology that helped Global Resolve projects?

MH: Yes—a year ago a grad student at our Polytech campus developed the concept for the "twig light" that I mentioned earlier. It’s a device that generates electricity from heat without a battery. You don’t need the sun either. All you need is heat. In many places, a household might be cooking with charcoal as the sun is going down, and there’s a need for a light source. With the twig light, all you need to do is put a few hot coals in the top, put the bottom in water as a cooling source and in the middle there is a "thermoelectric generator." It produces enough voltage to power LED lights or a cell phone. This is different from solar devices, which can be quite expensive and which have a battery that wears out. And of course, you can’t recharge a solar device at night.

TSR: What’s the reception to having visitors? Is there any negative reaction along the lines of: "Who are these Americans that think they know all the answers to our problems?"

MH: Well, the truth is that we honestly don’t know the answers to their problems. Only they know what they need, so they help us come up with solutions, and we offer what we can by trying to help out. We enter the community as learners. It’s very important to make that distinction because we don’t have the answers, and they truly are the experts in their lives and needs.

One exercise we’ve used in the past to help convey this notion is Rural Village Appraisal, which includes a collaboration exercise to have the community help us draw a map of their village. We might use charcoal or colored paper or sometimes just twigs and leaves to have them show us where the chief’s house is, where the toilets are, the church or mosques, the water sources, the rivers, roads, etc. Through this exercise they show us something about themselves and their needs. We show that we’re there to learn, and hopefully we can become trusted partners. That’s the key—to have trust on both sides. But in general the community members are welcoming and excited about the possibilities of improving their lives.

TSR: What are the biggest challenges the projects face now?

MH: Right now, our big challenge is starting the businesses. The way people in Ghana do business is not necessarily the way we do it. Even after testing out the solutions, we still have to really see how business practices work and see if there is a way to help. Often, it can be very difficult for someone in Ghana to start a business. If someone there is living on a dollar a day, on the brink of starvation, they don’t have time to spend 24/7 starting a new business. We have to help the communities understand how to create a business at a low risk. There are ways to do that: one option is micro-finance through groups like Grameen Bank.

Also, we can’t just go and then come back and ignore the project. There has to be continued partnership with the community. We have set up a partnership with the Center for Energy the Environment and Sustainable Development (CEESD) in Ghana. It’s run by two faculty members at Kumasi Polytechnic University who did graduate fellowships with Global Resolve. It’s a great partnership because we need local partners for this to work and they can receive some funding from Global Resolve.

TSR: Where do you think this might be in five to ten years?

MH: There are so many problems in the developing world. In the past, there has been over a trillion dollars put forth to solve these problems, mostly through government aid and philanthropy. But what you often find is that this results in a lot of abandoned technology. Maybe a tractor was donated, but it stopped working, and there was no plan or funding set aside for maintenance. People have no choice but to just leave it to rust in the jungle. It could be a result of how the aid is administered. Sometimes the way aid filters down through the governments to the people doesn’t address what people need. It may never actually "trickle down" if there is corruption.

There are a few books I use to illustrate the problem to students. One is Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, which suggests a top-down aid approach. Another is Creating a World Without Poverty by Mohammed Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. He supports a more bottom-up approach through micro-loans. There is also William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, which advocates for more village-level interaction, which is primarily what we try to follow. It’s slower because you’re dealing with one community at a time, but if it’s successful, the solutions should propagate out and spread. Additionally, we’re more certain the aid gets to the people who need it. And if we’re smart, we can sit back and listen to the community's needs directly, not force our solutions onto someone else. If we get this gel fuel business off and running, we hope there would be other gel fuel businesses popping up around it.

TSR: How has your thinking about sustainability problems shifted through the course of this research?

MH: For a long time, I thought sustainability meant only environmental sustainability. But now we talk about other aspects like cultural and social sustainability. And economic sustainability—it can’t be a flash in the pan that has big success and then dies. It has to grow rationally and reasonably over a period time. We also want to have sustainability in other areas like education—giving people the opportunity to educate themselves about the business, the technology, the supply chain and so on.

TSR: So you’re really talking about building capacity here.

MH: That’s right—we’re trying to build capacity in the villages. And sometimes building capacity means doing something like providing clean water. The community won’t be able to produce gel fuel, for example, if they are primarily worried about their health. To help bring up the capacity of the village we just had donations from Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe provide about 700 water filters and by holding a benefit concert to collect funds to bring electricity to the village. Sometimes, you have to provide some basic needs before people can start to think about building a business.

TSR: Are there any important skills that are helpful this type of work?

MH: We love diversity. We can’t do this with just engineering or business or sustainability students. We need English majors, film and video, nursing, global health, you name it! Anthropology is especially important since we do a lot of ethnographic work. There are no prerequisites.

TSR: Are there any memorable stories to share from one of your trips to Ghana?

MH: Probably the most memorable time was the first trip I took to Ghana. I went by myself to a small village of 500, called Fawomanye. It was somewhat intimidating since it was my first visit to Africa. When I got there, the villagers held a meeting under the large fig tree near the chief’s house.  When I talked to the chief, it was actually through a "linguist" who then communicated to the chief. I started simply by saying, "I am here from Arizona State and Global Resolve." I told the village that I was there to understand their problems and hopefully provide solutions. They said, "We need two things: clean water and lights at night. We don’t want to have to go to bed when the sun goes down. We want a social life like the rest of the world. And we want our kids to be able to do homework at night." It was an extraordinary experience just being able to connect immediately like that without going through a government or university; we just went straight to the village. That experience helped guide the approach we take now.

Contributor Information:

Mark Henderson is a professor of Engineering at Arizona State University at the Polytechnic campus. He founded the ASU Global Engineering Design Team and also is co-founder of GlobalResolve (http://globalresolve.asu.edu). His research has led to over 60 papers and a textbook in computer-aided design and global engineering.