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A look at the latest climate research and its impact on the energy debate

In the spirit of writing more often about climate research, I thought I’d share some new data on the impact of climate change on coral reefs and forests. Climate advocates have homed in on the research in the latest effort to call for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for tracking climate patterns, said yesterday that high ocean temperatures in 2005 led to the worst coral reef damage in the Caribbean on record. The high ocean temperatures resulted in the bleaching of some 80 percent of the coral reef surveyed in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic. When coral is bleached, essential algae that grow on the coral are expelled. About 40 percent of the coral reef died, according to the new study, which is the most comprehensive on the issue.

NOAA scientists say the bleaching and coral death will have a severe effect on the ocean ecosystem. They also say that the problem is likely to get worse as ocean temperatures rise as a result of climate change.

“Heat stress during the 2005 event exceeded any observed in the Caribbean in the prior 20 years, and regionally-averaged temperatures were the warmest in at least 150 years,” said Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program, in a statement. “This severe, widespread bleaching and mortality will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for reef ecosystems, and events like this are likely to become more common as the climate warms.”

Environmentalists are using this study and other research to call for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the new crop of Republicans entering Congress raise questions about climate science, environmentalists are redoubling their efforts to educate the public on the issue, even as prospects for climate legislation in the Senate and a binding global climate treaty appear unlikely.

In a call sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists last week, Brenda Ekwurze, a climate scientist at the group, pointed to the NOAA data to underscore that “the science remains unequivocal.”

Eakin, who also spoke on the call, said, “Right now, coral reefs around the world are either bleached, dead from bleaching or trying to recover from bleaching.” Eakin added that scientists are seeing wide-scale bleaching in 2010 as well. Early data suggests the bleaching isn’t as severe as in the 1990s, when about 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs were destroyed. But Eakin said, “How bad does it have to be? Is one atomic blast worse than another?”

Another issue UCS is focusing on to build a case for action on climate change is forest fires. New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that continued increases in greenhouse gas emissions will result in never-before-seen instances of global forest fires.

Olga Pechony, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies who conducted the research and spoke on the call last week, said, “If we take care of the base cause of this increase, global warming, this would be something that would help. Reducing the levels of warming would reduce the levels of fire activity.”

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