Deep below the Pacific Ocean in the Kaneohe Bay, lies miles of coral that are home to multiple thousands of species of fish. Along the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, the bay is the perfect snapshot of the marine life that is crucial to sustaining human civilization. These species of fish, however, that populate the miles of coral called coral reefs, are under grave threat.
The global rise in climate and sea temperature poses many serious ecological threats to society, with few being as dangerous as what it is doing to our reefs. Coral reefs hold up to 25% of all the marine life on the planet, providing 500 million people in over 94 countries with the food and resources to survive. With an annual global value of $375 billion, they are critical to human life.
We, as a people, have already taken a huge hit with 19% of the world’s coral reefs already gone. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that at the pace we are on now, we will lose another 15%. A study by the World Resources Institute shows that 75% of coral reefs are at risk and that at our current pace 90% will be at risk by 2030, with 100% at risk by 2050. This equals disaster.
What is Killing our Reefs?
This calamitous trend is the result of several factors including overfishing, sedimentation and pollution, among others. The biggest influence though, is certainly our warming climate, as the increase in greenhouse gases like carbon-dioxide (CO2) cause global temperatures to rise.
These emissions result in hotter sea waters as the oceans absorb 90% of the heat released from CO2. This causes zooxanthellae (algae essential for coral life) to be expelled from the reefs, which will kill them if they go too long without the algae returning.
Oceans also absorb 26% of the carbon-dioxide alone, which results in increased ocean acidification. This is also detrimental to essential algae in coral reefs as well.
There doesn’t seem to be much help coming from Washington. This year President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, along with appointing long-time opponent of environmental regulations on multinational fossil fuel corporations, Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA.
A study by the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that US government subsidies alone will improvidently bankroll around 6 billion tons of carbon production by the oil industry over the next few decades.
Not only does Washington not seem to prioritize this climate crisis in any way, on the contrary, it appears to be the biggest abettor to the fossil fuel industry’s annual global destruction of our planet.
Though other global leaders and governments have shown great awareness of this crisis and a desire to spearhead it, the work being done is not nearly enough. Even if we stopped emitting CO2 right now, which we are nowhere close to doing, the global climate would still rise. To say we are far behind is putting it lightly.
With a lack of global leadership from government officials, and the fact that regardless of our vigilance we will still experience drastic climate heating, it is time to look to what is actually being done to specifically combat our reef crisis in the face of imminent warming.
As we inch closer and closer to complete devastation, multiple groups are initiating a project to strengthen coral reefs and repopulate them over time. This is called the 50 Reefs Initiative.
The “50 Reefs” Plan
Conducted by The Ocean Agency, The Wildlife Conservation Society, and the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the groups seek to use new technology to monitor a larger number of reef population than ever before.
Available field studies currently only represent about 0.01% of reefs worldwide. The success of this project could markedly expand this scope. Using new high-fidelity imaging technology, and analytical methods to better map areas of reef population that were previously impossible to monitor, the effort will identify 50 coral reefs that are most likely to survive to track trends at a new and better pace. This will be completed by using CAO (Carnegie Airborne Observatory) mapping technology, which has been under development for 12 years.
The 50 Reefs Initiative is also using The Ocean Agency’s new 360-degree camera system to reveal virtual dives for audiences using Google Street View and to revolutionize the way scientists can monitor the reefs over time. This helps to keep track of trends such as the mass-bleaching event that went on last year.
Similar notable technology that is being utilized to improve the tracking of reefs, is the PRISM program (Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer) developed by NASA. It is an airborne instrument that will analyze reefs in terms of their greater ecosystem. It will show how environments shape reef ecosystems. The goal is to be able to monitor all coral reefs within a decade.
The second part of this plan, though, is perhaps the most fascinating. It also has the potential for revolutionary breakthroughs in the scientific community. This is the tactic of identifying and reproducing the strongest possible coral off-springs. It is called “assisted evolution.”
What is Assisted Evolution?
The process of developing these stronger coral offspring’s start with using CAO mapping to distinguish between areas of stress-resistant corals and stress-sensitive corals. The stress-resistant corals are the ones that maintain their color in hotter weather, as opposed to stress-sensitive coral which bleaches when it dies.
The reason for this “bleaching” goes back to the aforementioned zooxanthellae. As the coral loses this crucial algae, they change color and turn either bleach white or sometimes blue.
A way of distinguishing between the reefs losing the zooxanthellae and the reefs that are not, is the difference in densities in concentration of other pigments, like chlorophyll. These pigments can be captured in a spatial format using the CAO technology to pinpoint which regions of coral meet the standard of “strong” reefs.
Once the coral is identified, the process of assisted evolution can begin. Temperatures are raised in labs to test the coral to confirm the strongest potential samples. The differences in their ability to resist the heat stress is largely a function of their DNA.
Coral are extremely particular about which type of algae they partner with. A group of algae called Clade D, includes some of the most stress-resistant varieties there are. Unfortunately coral tends not to respond positively to Clade D. They prefer Clade C algae, which are better short-term food producers but are not as beneficial in the long-term.
Professor Ruth Gates, research professor and director of the project, along with her colleague Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, is conducting the process of assisted evolution currently.
They plan to subject Clade C algae to increased temperatures along with acidity, and those that survive will be regrown. The repetition of this process will wean out the weaker algae and promote the stronger ones. This can be spread over time to repopulate the seas with stress-resistant corals that can survive in our current climate until progress is made.
How successfully it can be implemented, remains to be seen.
There is a group working on that right now. A non-profit organization called SECORE is developing ways to seed these coral offspring “recruits” and disperse them on a large-scale basis. They are doing so with the goal of creating massive coral restoration all over the oceans.
This could help make the assisted evolution project very effective. Now it just needs funding, and traction.
The Big Picture for Coral Reefs
Though certain critiques exist, the possible negatives of not attending to our reefs far outweigh the potential negatives of going through with this project on a mass scale.
It is generally true that this could reduce the diversity of the reefs over time if this were to be implemented. But as Gates told BBC, “you’ve also got to think about what will happen if we do nothing.”
So, let’s do just that. What would happen if we did, “nothing?”
Our marine life would be totally decimated. The natural protection against hurricane caused waves/tsunamis would be gone. Land would slowly erode with certain islands descending into the bordering seas. The destroyed/disappearing lands would lead to a migrant-crisis the likes of which we have never experienced. The depleted food supply would lead to mass starvation and illness around the world.
It is pure disaster if we do nothing. Our civilization relies too heavily on marine life to do nothing. The literal continuation of society is strongly dependent on saving these reefs. It is nothing short of critical.
A massive funding effort is what is needed for ultimate implementation of the “50 Reef Project.” There seems few causes more worthy of societal/government attention and funds. If governments don’t exist to protect civilization, what do they exist for?
It is important to recognize through all of this, that combatting the reef-crisis is a small cog in a much larger operation. Saving the reefs is important, but if global greenhouse gas emissions aren’t lowered and a large-scale shift in our energy production isn’t established, more than just our oceans and marine life will be at risk.
Our health, our drinking water, our oxygen, our critical life essentials, etc., are all under attack by fossil fuel companies and their paid government representatives who carry out their agenda. We needn’t forget this big picture while attending to the smaller functions of it.
Professor Gates said that she wanted to see a the stabilization of coral reef depletion, while also focusing on, “the much bigger issue of mitigating fossil fuel burning.”
In the meantime though, the 50 Reefs Initiative is doing all it can to aid to furthering of civilization.