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Source: NPS Climate Change Response

In the face of ocean-wide coral bleaching events, scientists in Hawaii are hoping to breed a strain of “super coral” that can withstand the rigors of global warming.

“So much of our field has been simply watching the demise of reefs,” Ruth Gates, coral researcher and director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, told Newsweek.“It’s time to think about solutions. We don’t have a lot of time.”

A comparison of the November 1997 and July 2015 El Niños in the Pacific Ocean west of Peru. (Areas of warm water appear in red.) The 2015-2016 El Niño has exacerbated ocean warming. (Image: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

A comparison of the November 1997 and July 2015 El Niños in the Pacific Ocean west of Peru. (Areas of warm water appear in red.) The 2015-2016 El Niño has exacerbated ocean warming. (Image: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

The Problem: Coral Bleaching

Why do we need a solution to “coral bleaching?” Because it’s a problem that destroys an essential ecosystem for marine life. A quarter of all undersea animals live on coral reefs, and WWF argues that “the variety of life supported by coral reefs rivals that of the tropical forests of the Amazon or New Guinea.”

So coral are important. But what are they, exactly?

Coral reefs do not move, which can lead people to believe they’re simply part of the ocean infrastructure – like rocks or sand. In fact, coral are living organisms. They are invertebrates that group up in compact colonies, some of which secrete calcium carbonate to form skeletons that are very rock-like. “Coral bleaching” occurs when coral undergoes intense stress, such as sudden changes in temperature. This triggers a reaction in coral that forces it to expel the symbiotic algae that keeps it alive.

Without the algae, coral turn white and become more susceptible to disease. They don’t always die, but they often do.

Bleaching coral near the Keppel Islands. Note the normal, healthy-colored coral in the background. (Image Source: Creative Commons)

Bleaching coral near the Keppel Islands. Note the normal, healthy-colored coral in the background. (Image Source: Creative Commons)

Since 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has received reports of major coral bleaching events occurring across the Pacific Ocean. The Great Barrier Reef is now suffering the worst coral bleaching event in 15 years, and researchers report that 93 percent of the reef has been bleached. In the Atlantic, coral are also bleaching around the Florida keys.

This is happening, in large part, due to global warming.

Now, maybe you don’t believe in global warming. “They got 90 inches of snow in Buffalo!” you say. And that’s true (it’s also true that the very next year Buffalo received no measurable snow at all, but let’s not quibble). The effects of global warming are such that weather patterns around the world are changing, not just getting hotter but getting more extreme – dry places become drier, wet places become wetter. But the ocean is one place where the temperature is unequivocally rising.

Since 1970, the heat content for ocean waters between zero and 2,000 meters has been on a steady incline. Dr. John Abraham, professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas, has said that oceans are warming so quickly, they are “breaking scientists’ charts.”

“We tend to focus on the global temperature average which is the average of air temperatures near the ground (or at the sea surface),” Abraham wrote in January 2015. “This past year, global air temperatures were record-breaking. But that isn’t the same as global warming. Global warming is properly viewed as the amount of heat contained within the Earth’s energy system. […] Well, it turns out that the energy stored within the ocean (which is 90% or more of the total ‘global warming’ heat), increased significantly.”

Ocean heat content (OHC) data to a depth of 2,000 meters. (Source: NOAA/Department of Commerce)

Ocean heat content (OHC) data to a depth of 2,000 meters. (Source: NOAA/Department of Commerce)

Marine records show that the ocean is now warming more quickly. In the last decade, 30 percent of the warming has occurred below 700 meters, which accelerates the process.

What’s more, a recent study conducted by an international team of researchers from Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, the U.S. and the UK, has found that staghorn corals, the ocean’s major reef builders for the last 1.8 million years, face the greatest risk from ocean warming and ocean acidification.

Staghorn coral. (Photo Credit: Albert Kok via WikiMedia Commons)

Staghorn coral. (Photo Credit: Albert Kok via WikiMedia Commons)

The Solution: “Franken-Coral?”

So we’ve well established that prospects are not good for the planet’s coral reefs. That’s why the University of Hawaii’s Dr. Gates is trying to breed a form of coral that can take the climate punishment humanity is dishing out.

Gates and a team of researchers are studying different kinds of coral in Kane’ohe Bay (located on the island of Moku o Lo’e, home to the University’s marine lab) to determine what makes some bleach and others survive. “There is this incredible diversity in coral, how they feed, how they reproduce, how they respond to water temperature and acidity,” she told Newsweek. “I hate it when this enormously complex story gets translated as ‘all coral will be dead in 50 years.’ There is so much that we don’t yet understand about their capacity for resilience.”

Coral on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo Credit: Kyle Taylor / Flickr)

Coral on the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo Credit: Kyle Taylor / Flickr)

According to Newsweek, researchers will sequence the genomes of the five main coral species living in the bay to find out which genes make them more resilient. Good genes, paired with the right combination of algae (there are hundreds of species of algae that bond symbiotically to coral cells), might make a more climate-resistant coral reef. Gates and her team will expose their coral subjects to stressors in the lab and then reintroduce them to natural reefs to see how they perform.

There is opposition to this plan from environmentalists who see these “Franken-coral” as yet another product of humans’ meddling with Mother Nature. The outcry against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is on the rise, and this “human-assisted evolution,” as Gates calls it, is afforded no distinction.

But the scientist is adamant that humans ought to try their best to repair the environment they’ve bungled. “This is not GMOs, people!” Gates recently told an audience at the Punahou School in Honolulu, arguing that the University’s work involves the same kind of selective breeding that farmers have done for centuries.

Studying coral reefs in Virgin Islands National Park. Coral in the Virgin Islands are dying due to bleaching and ocean acidification. Reefs in Biscayne National Park, National Park of American Samoa, and War in the Pacific National Historical Park are also being impacted. (Photo Credit: NPS Climate Change Response / Flickr)

Studying coral reefs in Virgin Islands National Park. Coral in the Virgin Islands are dying due to bleaching and ocean acidification. Reefs in Biscayne National Park, National Park of American Samoa, and War in the Pacific National Historical Park are also being impacted. (Photo Credit: NPS Climate Change Response / Flickr)

Frankly, the coral are going to need all the help they can get. As if ocean warming and ocean acidification weren’t bad enough, a study published last year in Environmental Contamination Toxicology found that corals are also being killed by our sunscreen. Oxybenzone, a chemical UV filter, causes endocrine disruption, DNA damage and death in young coral. The contamination occurs at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion, which is equivalent to “a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool.”

The U.S. National Park Service calculates that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas every year.

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