May 17, 2011

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Dr. Dan Loffoley

Dr. Dan Laffoley is the Marine Vice Chair for the World Commission on Protected Areas of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN, http://www.iucn.org/). The focus of this Commission is a global partnership between park agencies and experts working together to protect the ocean. He is also the Senior Advisor for the Marine Science and Conservation Global Marine and Polar Programme at IUCN. Through his work, Dr. Laffoley has provided knowledge, innovation and leadership for new ways of conveying the importance of marine conservation to people throughout the world. To accomplish this mission, Dr. Laffoley advocates bringing science and policy initiatives together in order to communicate the threats of climate change to a broader audience. Dr. Laffoley was a co-originator of the Google Oceans Layer with Dr. Earle and is passionate about using information technology to inform the public about ocean conservation issues. During day three of the IMCC2 Dr. Laffoley sat down with Dr. Phil McGillivary to discuss high latitude marine protected areas (MPAs).

Dr. Phil McGillivary: What is your perspective on ocean acidification research, and what are the potential problems future MPA’s may experience as a result of ocean acidification in high latitude areas like the Arctic?

Dr. Laffoley: My involvement with ocean acidification is through something called the International Ocean Acidification Reference Users Group (http://www.epoca-project.eu/index.php/what-do-we-do/outreach/rug/oa-questions-answered.html), and this is something that we put together funded by the European Commission that is the first major program in the world to link end users with scientists from the start of the research, so that we make sure that they develop the most useful products, and that we get them out there.

The European Program On Ocean Acidification (EPOCA) is starting to understand the basics of what ocean acidification is, and how it will affect things. Since EPOCA began, other programs have come on board. In Europe we have the BIOACID (Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification) program in Germany, we have the U.K. program, and just this year the Mediterranean program, MedSeA (Mediterranean Sea Acidification in a changing climate), is launching. We will now work with those projects to look into how we can get the science and discoveries out as quickly as possible to the public, as well as policy and decision makers. One of the things we have been doing over the last few years is focus on the basic facts, and get the information out in multiple languages: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic.

Dr. Phil McGillivary:
How does this include the European Ocean Observatory efforts?

Dr. Laffoley: EPOCA involves key research programs and questions alongside the European Ocean Observatory programs. There are a series of issues we need to look at about how individual species will respond, both in the laboratory and in mesocosm [large experimental enclosures in the ocean].

KOSMOS (Kiel-Off-Shore-Mesocosms for future Ocean Simulation)

Last year EPOCA set up the largest mesocosm experiment ever conducted. It took place in the Norwegian arctic in the Kongsfjord off Ny Ålesund, Svalbard: the experiment was called the KOSMOS (Kiel-Off-Shore-Mesocosms for future Ocean Simulation, shown on left). We put together this truly massive experiment and had to nudge icebergs out of the way for the duration of the experiment: pretty scary stuff! But, the project is starting to uncover answers to some of the basic questions about ocean acidification. This is an incredibly young science, and the reality is, as young as it is we now understand that the effects and impacts that we will see from ocean acidification will perhaps be much sooner then we thought. We originally thought that changes would occur in 2100 or even 2050, however when you look at the climate change projections, actual environmental data in the field is already ahead of the worst case scenarios. Thus, we also expected to see measurable effects of ocean acidification, and these have become apparent with each new field data assessment. So the latest assessment is that 10% of the Arctic Ocean will be noticeably acidified by 2018, which is just a few years away.

Dr. Phil McGillivary:
How does this issue of imminent ocean acidification bear on the issue of a marine protected area for the Arctic?

Dr. Laffoley: I think it has a very strong bearing for various reasons. First, as I’ve said it’s the Polar Regions that are going to be hit the hardest and first because of temperature change: colder waters can hold more dissolved gases, and as you heat the ocean up, the gases come out, the same process that causes boiling water to bubble as the gases come out of solution.

What we are seeing is that the biggest effect of climate change and ocean acidification is going to be in the Arctic Ocean. There will also be an effect in the tropics, which has its own set of challenges, but to focus on the Arctic, what are the effects on Marine Protected Areas? There are several: first, if we are going to do something about ocean acidification, we need to act sooner rather than later, because putting it off will cost more money. The reality is that we already have ocean acidification, and it will last for some considerable amount of time, so we need to make sure we have the most healthy and resilient ecosystem protections in place so these areas have the greatest chance of bouncing back from climate change and ocean acidification.

Dr. Phil McGillivary: In terms of where Arctic MPAs are going to be established, how would you suggest these be selected? On the west coast, including Alaska, there are areas that are very productive now because of upwelling of nutrients, but this upwelled water is becoming increasingly acidic and may limit productivity in the future. How would such scenarios determine what areas should be protected in the Arctic to ensure ocean conservation areas are sustained into the future?

Dr. Laffoley: We know from work done throughout the world on Marine Reserves that they are as susceptible as the rest of the coastline. However, when you look at how quickly they bounce back, although you are not going to solve the problem of ocean acidification with Marine Protected Areas, you will protect a more resilient ecosystem with a greater chance for recovery. MPAs ensure we have ecosystems that are less susceptible to impacts.

Dr. Phil McGillivary: What about the issue, especially at high latitudes, of the lack of data?

Dr. Laffoley:
Well I’m often asked what we do about this problem. We could put modeling and years of testing together to prove what we need to do. But what I say to that is “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” The reality is that we don’t have time – time is not on our side – and when you look back into the several hundred year history of conservation, judgment about what is special, and what we need to do to preserve special areas, has generally been sound. The entire backbone of conservation over the last one hundred years in the U.K., America and elsewhere has not been based on computer programs or detailed criteria, it has been based on doing the right thing at the right scale in the right places.

Dr. Phil McGillivary:
What about the issue of just documenting the rate of change?

Dr. Laffoley: It is fundamentally important to know what is going on: we do need to know the scale of change, but we only know enough to know that ecosystems are changing. We know that you can retain resilience in ecosystems by high levels of protection, and we also know an awful lot about the distribution of importance of sensitive habitats in the Arctic. We know where the important places are for fish spawning, we know where important breeding areas are for other species, and we know where there are aggregations of wildlife, all being confronted with a changing world. Part of establishing MPAs is to ensure we put in place proper protection, but equally, part of this is using data to drive the climate negotiations much harder. We need to make cuts to CO2 emissions more quickly to ensure that we ultimately reduce the overall level of impact of climate change and acidification on the sea.

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