10

Apr

2017

#EarthDay Climate Change Will Wipe Out Blue Whales Within a Decade

Written by: Robert L. Wilby

 
Blue Whale - Oregon State Parks

Robert L. Wilby, author of Climate Change in Practice, considers the culture of 'alternative facts' and discusses the legacy of Earth Day, the 'demise' of the Blue Whale and the importance of checking the details.

 

Climate Change Will Wipe Out Blue Whales Within a Decade

How can we tell whether this headline is true? Few of us have ever had the good fortune to encounter a blue whale. Many of us live far from their ocean ranges. Most of us are not marine biologists or experts in bioclimatic modelling.

Yet, if we type “blue whale climate change” into Google Scholar there are instantly 40,000+ entries to choose from. Narrow the search by adding the word “extinction” and the list is still a staggering 19,300 items. Who has the time to read all this stuff?

Fake headlines are so easy to create but much harder to check

The point is that, in an era of ‘relative truth’ and an explosion of digital information, fake headlines are so easy to create but much harder to check. Stuart Lane at the Université de Lausanne refers to a “crisis of over production”[1]. We are generating much more material than any of us are capable of consuming.

 

The mass media clearly thrives on an eye-catching headline. Three choice picks on climate change are:

  • Pollution is turning the seas into acid (Daily Mail, 11 November 2006);
  • Global melt down will end life on Earth by 2020 (News of the World, 17 January 2012);
  • The next big freeze could last 250 years (Mail, 29 April 2013).

Sometimes, the imperative to self-promote our research or to achieve a ‘higher goal’ makes us complicit in telling such stories.

 

Groups of like-minded people bounce their thoughts and are less likely to encounter contrary views

Meanwhile, social media and tailored search engines create so-called ‘echo chambers’ within which groups of like-minded people bounce their thoughts and are less likely to encounter contrary views[2]. Elsewhere, the worlds of academia and of the Web are converging in the form of altmetrics and crowd-sourced scholarship. Jason Priem of the University of North Carolina fears that the ‘wisdom of crowds’ could be replaced by the ‘madness of mobs’[3].

In theory, we have the peer-review process to protect the quality of published research. But this is fallible as proved by cases of scientific fraud, underlying tendencies to downplay uncertainty, or to over-state the significance of our work[4]. Those who claim to be shut out by the consensus, point to the obstacle of ‘buddy review’ or tactics of intentional ‘non-citation’.

Scientific journals have become a global industry that charges large author fees in return for publication. One infamous spoof paper about a wonder cancer drug was submitted to 304 open access journals, of which only 105 proceeded through a discernible review process that ended in a 70% acceptance rate[5]. In another sting operation, a fictitious Professor Fay Kortha of Basingstoke University College even managed to join the Editorial Board of a journal[6].

 

Stringent peer-review and a healthy distrust remain central to the development of science

Stringent peer-review and a healthy distrust remain central to the development of science – climate expertise and scepticism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But measurement of expertise is problematic since the volume of academic papers and citation indices are unreliable guides. Research funding and affiliations are not always easy to establish, although journals increasingly require that they be stated.

Sometimes knowledge is so scarce that there is no alternative to relying on expert opinion. Examples include estimating the probability of collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or likelihood of extirpation of an iconic species like polar bears.

Different circles of experts arrive at different sets of conclusions

Problems arise when different circles of experts arrive at different sets of conclusions, perhaps motivated by different ideologies. For instance, belief in low climate sensitivity to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases certainly favours the stance adopted by those who oppose or seek to delay action on climate change.

Unsurprisingly, political orientation is a strong predictor of attitudes to global warming as shown by surveys conducted by the U.S. Pew Research Center. A 2015 poll revealed a partisan gulf with 83% of conservative and moderate Democrats believing the Earth is warming compared with just 38% of conservative Republicans[7].

Given information in excess, enigmatic experts and party politics how can we spot bogus science? Words like “will” should always ring alarm bells in the context of climate change. Lack of caveats or undue confidence, even hubris, are all warnings. A personal favourite is any meme beginning with the words “Professor says…”

Becca Smithers of Science Made Simple[8] offers 10 other tell-tale signs:

  • 1) unrealistic claims;
  • 2) small sample sizes;
  • 3) correlation as causation;
  • 4) pseudo-scientific jargon;
  • 5) vested interests of funders;
  • 6) non-committal language (although this can legitimately reflect uncertainty);
  • 7) claims of ‘scientifically proven’;
  • 8) no control group;
  • 9) non-replicable results;
  • 10) supporting evidence that is hard to find.

 

So what do credible sources actually say about the immediate fate of blue whales?

Blue whale possibly meets the criteria for classification as a critically endangered species

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) possibly meets the criteria for classification as a critically endangered species. There is taxonomic uncertainty about sub-species and estimated global populations are in the range 10,000–25,000. Commercial whaling depleted numbers by as much as 90% over the last three generations[9]. Ongoing concerns include low genetic diversity, lifetime exposure to pollution, expanding krill fishery and noise from marine traffic.

Climate change is listed by the IUCN as another threat to blue whales. Loss of sea ice could lead to large reductions in krill biomass with ramifications for whale foraging and reproductive success[10]. It is unlikely that their overall range will be altered by rising ocean temperatures because the blue whale is regarded as a cosmopolitan species that is found in all habitats, from ice-edge to tropical waters[11].

However, a changing range is enabling the pygmy blue whale sub-species to inter-breed with the Antarctic blue whale, increasing genetic exchange between the two populations[12]. None of these studies predict an imminent collapse of the blue whale due to climate change but there are reasons for concern over the longer term.

 

Earth Day, 22 April 2016 marked the opening for signature of the United Nations Paris Agreement – the culmination of decades of scientific enquiry and political negotiations to curb greenhouse gas emissions. So much has changed since then. The treaty remains in force but anti-science sentiment and fake news are riding high.

Let’s all dig deeper into the science behind the headlines on Earth Day 2017. Did you spot the ‘alternative fact’ slipped into this article?

 

 

[1] Lane, S.N. 2016. Slow science, the geographical expedition, and Critical Physical Geography. The Canadian Geographer, in press.

[2] Williams, H.T.P. et al. 2015. Network analysis reveals open forums and echo chambers in social media discussions of climate change. Global Environmental Change, 32, 126-138.

[3] Priem, J. 2013. Scholarship: Beyond the paper. Nature, 495, 437-440.

[4] https://www.climate-lab-book.ac.uk/2016/super-duper-climate-science-papers/

[5] Bohannon, J. 2013. Who’s afraid of peer review? Science, 342, 60-65.

[6] https://rolsi.net/2016/09/26/spoofing-the-predatory-open-access-journals/

[7] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/16/ideological-divide-over-global-warming-as-wide-as-ever/

[8] http://www.sciencemadesimple.co.uk/exploring-science/top-10-ways-to-spot-bad-science

[9] http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/classify/2477/0

[10] Wiedenmann, J., et al. 2011. Exploring the effects of reductions in krill biomass in the Southern Ocean on blue whales using a state-dependent foraging model. Ecological Modelling, 222, 3366-3379.

[11] MacLeod, C.D. 2009. Global climate change, range changes and potential implications for the conservation of marine cetaceans: a review and synthesis. Endangered Species Research, 7, 125-136.

[12] Attard, C.R.M. et al. 2012. Hybridization of Southern Hemisphere blue whale subspecies and a sympatric area off Antarctica: impacts of whaling or climate change? Molecular Ecology, 21, 57115-5727.

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About the Author: Robert L. Wilby

Robert L. Wilby, author of Climate Change in Practice is Professor of Hydroclimatic Modelling in the Department of Geography at Loughborough University. His research expertise covers climate risk assessment and adaptation planning for freshwater systems, regional climate downscaling and hydrologic...

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