The outlook for coral reefs remains grim unless we cut emissions fast — new research


Morgan Pratchett, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, CC BY-ND

Christopher Cornwall, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Verena Schoepf, University of AmsterdamThe twin stress factors of ocean warming and acidification increasingly threaten coral reefs worldwide, but relatively little is known about how various climate scenarios will affect coral reef growth rates.

Our research, published today, paints a grim picture. We estimate that even under the most optimistic emissions scenarios, we’ll see dramatic reductions in coral reef growth globally.
The good news is that 63% of all reefs in this emissions scenario will still be able to grow by 2100.

But if emissions continue to rise unabated, we predict 94% of coral reefs globally will be eroding by 2050. Even under an intermediate emissions scenario, we project a worst-case outcome in which coral reefs on average will no longer be able to grow vertically by 2100.

The latter scenarios would have dramatic consequences for marine biodiversity and the millions of people who depend on healthy, actively growing coral reefs for livelihoods and shoreline protection. This highlights the urgency and importance of acting now to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Coral reefs are home to more than 830,000 species and provide coastal communities with food and income through fisheries and tourism.

The Great Barrier Reef alone contributes A$6.4 billion to the Australian economy. Critically, coral reefs also protect coastlines from storm surges and create land for many low-lying Indo-Pacific island nations.

Marine heatwaves, caused by ongoing ocean warming, have already had a severe impact on coral reef ecosystems by triggering mass bleaching events. These events are becoming more frequent and intense, and cause mass die-offs across large areas.

Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef
Marine heatwaves trigger mass bleaching and coral die-offs.
Morgan Pratchett, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, CC BY-ND

Ocean acidification also reduces the growth of corals by limiting their ability to build their skeletons from calcium carbonate. Together, these stressors threaten the ability of coral reefs to grow and keep up with sea level rise.

Complex impacts from ocean warming and acidification

Our understanding of how ocean warming and acidification threaten reef-forming species has improved considerably over the past decade. However, understanding how coral reef growth will be altered by climate change is more complex than simply measuring rates of change from individual taxonomic groups of corals.

Our study of 183 reefs worldwide provides the first quantitative estimate of how most of the processes that control reef growth respond to climate change and affect carbonate accumulation and growth rates.

Coral reef
Coral on the Great Barrier Reef during the 2020 bleaching event.
Morgan Pratchett, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, CC BY-ND

Reefs grow by layering calcium carbonate, produced either by corals and coralline algae. The amount of calcium carbonate built by these reefs depends on many factors.

Cyclones, waves and currents can flush parts of the reef away. Acidifying ocean water means more dissolves chemically. And there is a biological carbonate exchange, known as bio-erosion. Sponges, parrotfish, sea urchins and algae can all eat it, but then return some as defecated sand.

Depending on which of these processes dominates, coral reefs either grow and accrete vertically, or they start to erode. Most of these processes vary for each reef, and almost all are affected by climate change.




Read more:
The Great Barrier Reef outlook is ‘very poor’. We have one last chance to save it


To complicate matters, the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves will vary geographically, making it difficult to estimate to what degree coral mass bleaching events will reduce coral cover.

In our research, we applied these local and global processes to 233 locations on 183 distinct coral reefs that vary in their species compositions and physical complexity. We found significant variability in responses to ocean acidification and warming.

Geographical and species variability

We predict coral mass bleaching events will have the largest impact on carbonate production across all sites. The world’s coral reefs have already been transformed dramatically by these events over the past few decades.

Coral bleaching at the Maledives
Coral reef in the Maldives, before coral mass bleachign event.
Chris Perry, CC BY-ND



Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


Diver and equipment at a coral reef
Experimental setup used to measure calcification coralline algae on the Great Barrier Reef.
Guillermo Diaz-Pulido, CC BY-ND

We used the documented impacts of the 2016 mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, which affected a large range of reefs with different species compositions, depths and latitudes. During this event, each reef experienced varying heat stress, which manifested in different levels of coral cover loss.

This information helped us to calibrate models to predict heat-stress events globally between now and 2100 and to gauge the future magnitudes of heat stress and their impact on our study sites.

We found currently degraded reefs fared poorly in our model, even under lower emissions scenarios. Reefs whose carbonate production was more robust against the effects of climate change tended to be those with high present-day carbonate production rates, higher contributions from coralline algae (which are also vulnerbable, but comparatively more resistant to warming than corals) and low rates of bio-erosion.

Hope for coral reefs

In higher emissions scenarios, even reefs dominated by coralline algae began to suffer as ocean acidification and warming intensified. It is also important to note that such reefs will provide different, and perhaps reduced, services compared to coral-dominated reefs because they are structurally less complex.

People standing on a coal reef
Team members assess coral health during the 2016 bleaching event in the Kimberley, Western Australia.
Christopher Cornwall, CC BY-ND

We did not explore in depth whether remaining coral reef communities could gain tolerance to rising temperatures over time. This could manifest as an increase in the proportional abundance of heat-tolerant species as more heat-sensitive corals die during mass bleaching events.

Surviving corals could acclimatise or even adapt. But whether these mechanisms could provide hope for the continued growth of coral reefs in the future — and if so, to what extent — is largely unknown. Nor can we say if more heat-tolerant corals could sustain similar rates of reef growth and structural complexity.

Coral reef in Chagos
A coral reef in Chagos before a bleaching event in April 2016.
Chris Perry, CC BY-ND

The best hope to save coral reefs and their ecological, societal and economic benefits is to reduce our carbon emissions dramatically, and quickly. Even under our projected intermediate scenarios we expect mean global erosion of coral reefs.

Under the lowest emissions scenario we examined, we expect profound changes in coral reef growth rates and their ability to provide ecosystem services. In this scenario, only some reefs will be able to keep pace with rising sea levels.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to reduce emissions now, if we have any hope of them witnessing the majestic nature of coral reef ecosystems.The Conversation

Christopher Cornwall, Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Verena Schoepf, Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Watching a coral reef die as climate change devastates one of the most pristine tropical island areas on Earth


Sam Purkis, University of MiamiThe Chagos Archipelago is one of the most remote, seemingly idyllic places on Earth. Coconut-covered sandy beaches with incredible bird life rim tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles from any continent. Just below the waves, coral reefs stretch for miles along an underwater mountain chain.

It’s a paradise. At least it was before the heat wave.

When I first explored the Chagos Archipelago 15 years ago, the underwater view was incredible. Schools of brilliantly colored fish in blues, yellows and oranges darted among the corals of a vast, healthy reef system. Sharks and other large predators swam overhead. Because the archipelago is so remote and sits in one of the largest marine protected areas on the planet, it has been sheltered from industrial fishing fleets and other activities that can harm the coastal environment.

But it can’t be protected from climate change.

A diver carries a plastic pipe for measuring while swimming over a variety of corals
A diver documents the coral reefs in the Chagos Archipelago.
Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

In 2015, a marine heat wave struck, harming coral reefs worldwide. I’m a marine biologist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and I was with a team of researchers on a 10-year global expedition to map the world’s reefs, led by the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation. We were wrapping up our work in the Chagos Archipelago at the time. Our report on the state of the reefs there was just published in spring 2021.

As the water temperature rose, the corals began to bleach. To the untrained eye, the scene would have looked fantastic. When the water heats up, corals become stressed and they expel the tiny algae called dinoflagellates that live in their tissue. Bleaching isn’t as simple as going from a living coral to a bleached white one, though. After they expel the algae, the corals turn fluorescent pinks and blues and yellows as they produce chemicals to protect themselves from the Sun’s harmful rays. The entire reef was turning psychedelic colors.

Two bright pink coral mounds
Just before they turned white, the corals turned abnormally bright shades.
Phil Renaud/Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

That explosion of color is rare, and it doesn’t last long. Over the following week, we watched the corals turn white and start to die. It wasn’t just small pieces of the reef that were bleaching – it was happening across hundreds of square miles.

What most people think of as a coral is actually many tiny colonial polyps that build calcium carbonate skeletons. With their algae gone, the coral polyps could still feed by plucking morsels out of the water, but their metabolism slows without the algae, which provide more nutrients through photosynthesis. They were left desperately weakened and more vulnerable to diseases. We could see diseases taking hold, and that’s what finished them off.

We were witnessing the death of a reef.

Rising temperatures increase the heat wave risk

The devastation of the Chagos Reef wasn’t happening in isolation.

Over the past century, sea surface temperatures have risen by an average of about 0.13 degrees Celsius (0.23 F) per decade as the oceans absorb the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, largely from the burning of fossil fuels. The temperature increase and changing ocean chemistry affects sea life of all kinds, from deteriorating the shells of oysters and tiny pteropods, an essential part of the food chain, to causing fish populations to migrate to cooler water.

Corals can become stressed when temperatures around them rise just 1 C (1.8 F) above their tolerance level. With water temperature elevated from global warming, even a minor heat wave can become devastating.

In 2015, the ocean heat from a strong El Niño event triggered the mass bleaching in the Chagos reefs and around the world. It was the third global bleaching on record, following events in 1998 and 2010.

Bleaching doesn’t just affect the corals – entire reef systems and the fish that feed, spawn and live among the coral branches suffer. One study of reefs around Papua New Guinea in the southwest Pacific found that about 75% of the reef fish species declined after the 1998 bleaching, and many of those species declined by more than half.

Research shows marine heat waves are now about 20 times more likely than they were just four decades ago, and they tend to be hotter and last longer. We’re at the point now that some places in the world are anticipating coral bleaching every couple of years.

That increasing frequency of heat waves is a death knell for reefs. They don’t have time to recover before they get hit again.

Where we saw signs of hope

During the Global Reef Expedition, we visited over 1,000 reefs around the world. Our mission was to conduct standardized surveys to assess the state of the reefs and map the reefs in detail so scientists could document and hopefully respond to changes in the future. With that knowledge, countries can plan more effectively to protect the reefs, important national resources, providing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in economic value while also protecting coastlines from waves and storms.

We saw damage almost everywhere, from the Bahamas to the Great Barrier Reef.

Some reefs are able to survive heat waves better than others. Cooler, stronger currents, and even storms and cloudier areas can help prevent heat building up. But the global trend is not promising. The world has already lost 30% to 50% of its reefs in the last 40 years, and scientists have warned that most of the remaining reefs could be gone within decades.

Diver with large sea turtle swimming over corals.
The author, Sam Purkis, dives near a hawksbill turtle in the Chagos Archipelago.
Derek Manzello/Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

While we see some evidence that certain marine species are moving to cooler waters as the planet warms, a reef takes thousands of years to establish and grow, and it is limited by geography.

In the areas where we saw glimmers of hope, it was mostly due to good management. When a region can control other harmful human factors – such as overfishing, extensive coastal development, pollution and runoff – the reefs are healthier and better able to handle the global pressures from climate change.

Establishing large marine protected areas is one of the most effective ways I’ve seen to protect coral reefs because it limits those other harms.

The Chagos marine protected area covers 640,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) with only one island currently inhabited – Diego Garcia, which houses a U.S. military base. The British government, which created the marine protected area in 2010, has been under pressure to turn over control of the region to the country of Mauritius, where former Chagos residents now live and which won a challenge over it in the International Court of Justice in 2020. Whatever happens with jurisdiction, the region would benefit from maintaining a high level of marine protection.

A warning for other ecosystems

The Chagos reefs could potentially recover – if they are spared from more heat waves. Even a 10% recovery would make the reefs stronger for when the next bleaching occurs. But recovery of a reef is measured in decades, not years.

So far, research missions that have returned to the Chagos reefs have found only meager recovery, if any at all.

We knew the reefs weren’t doing well under the insidious march of climate change in 2011, when the global reef expedition started. But it’s nothing like the intensity of worry we have now in 2021.

Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine. Humans have collapsed other ecosystems before through overfishing, overhunting and development, but this is the first unequivocally tied to climate change. It’s a harbinger of what can happen to other ecosystems as they reach their survival thresholds.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead-up to the U.N.‘s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.The Conversation

Sam Purkis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Marine Sciences, University of Miami

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These underwater photos show Norfolk Island reef life still thrives, from vibrant blue flatworms to soft pink corals



A big coral bommie in the lagoon at Norfolk Island.
John Turbull , Author provided

John Turnbull, UNSW

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


Two weeks ago, I found myself hitting the water on Norfolk Island, complete with a survey reel, slate and camera.

Norfolk Island is a small volcanic outcrop located between New Caledonia and New Zealand, 1,400 kilometres east of Australia’s Gold Coast. It’s surrounded by coral reefs, with a shallow lagoon on the south side that looks out on two smaller islands: Nepean and Phillip.

The island is picturesque, but like marine environments the world over, Norfolk Marine Park is subject to pressures from climate change, fishing pressure, habitat change and pollution.

I was diving in the marine park as a volunteer for Reef Life Survey, a citizen science program where trained SCUBA divers survey marine biodiversity in rocky and coral reefs around the world. We first surveyed Norfolk Island in 2009, then again in 2013, with an eight year hiatus before our return this month.

While the scientific analysis of our data is yet to be done, we can make anecdotal observations to compare this year’s findings with prior records and photographs. This time, our surveys turned up several new sightings and observations.

A wrinkly orange nudibranch nestled in algae
A red-ringed nudibranch (Ardeadoris rubroannulata). This beautiful little mollusc was a couple of centimetres long, nestled on the side of a wall covered in colourful algae. I had to look twice to notice it, but recognised it as a species I had seen before in Sydney. It had previously only been recorded in the Coral Sea, the east coast of Australia and Lord Howe island, so it was nice to get a record of it even further east in the Pacific.
John Turnbull, Author provided

What we saw

Diving under the waves in Norfolk Marine Park takes you into a world of crackling, popping reef sounds through clear blue water, with darting tropical fish, a tapestry of algae and hard and soft corals in pink, green, brown and red.

In these surveys we record fish species including their size and abundance, invertebrates such as urchins and sea stars, and habitat such as coral cover. This allows us to track changes in marine life using standardised scientific methods.

Emily Bay is a sheltered swimming beach at the eastern end of the lagoon, great for snorkelling too thanks to the diverse corals just below the surface.
John Turbull, Author provided
An orange fish near a mound of orange coral
Banded parma are quite territorial — they charge you as you approach their turf. This one is guarding what it regards as its own personal coral clump.
John Turbull, Author provided

Given recent major marine heatwaves and bleaching events in Australia, we were pleased to see healthy corals on many of our survey sites on Norfolk. We even felt there had been increases in coral cover at some sites.

This may be due to Norfolk’s location. The island is further south than most Australian coral reefs, which means it has cooler seas, and it’s surrounded by deeper water. I’m a marine ecologist involved in soft coral monitoring at the University of NSW, so I particularly noticed the wonderful diversity and size of soft corals.

Healthy brown coral garden
This photo shows the structure corals provide for fish and other animals to shelter in. They are the foundation for the whole tropical marine community. The corals here are a healthy brown — which comes from the symbiotic algae in their tissues – with no signs of bleaching.
John Turbull, Author provided
Soft pink coral
The soft corals on Norfolk Island are some of the largest I’ve seen. Their structure is made up of soft tissue, often inflated by water pressure, rather than hard skeleton.
John Turbull, Author provided
Close-up of white, wrinkly coral
Hard corals come in a diversity of shapes and sizes, including this massive form growing on the side of rock wall.
John Turbull, Author provided

I noticed generally low numbers of large fish such as morwong and sharks on our survey sites. Some classes of invertebrate were also rare on this year’s surveys, particularly sea shell animals like tritons and whelks.

Urchins, on the other hand, were common, particularly the red urchin. Some sites also had numerous black long-spined urchins and large sea lamingtons.

These invertebrate observations follow patterns we see in eastern and southern Australia, where there are declines in the numbers of many invertebrate species, and increases in urchin barrens — regions where urchin populations grow unchecked.

The expansion of urchin barrens can threaten biodiversity in a region, as large numbers of a single species of urchin can out-compete multiple species of other invertebrates, over-graze algae and reduce habitat suitable for fish.

Red urchin beside coral
The abundant red urchin competes for space with other invertebrates, such as this one encrusting hard coral.
John Turbull, Author provided
Fat, black and white urchins beneath a coral mound
Lamingtons are an Australian cake (although there are claims they were invented in NZ!) and I love this descriptive common name for the Tripneustes gratilla urchin. The sea lamingtons on Norfolk appear particularly fat and happy, as they cluster in sheltered grooves during the day to avoid predators. They can also be different colours — I’ve seen them on the east coast of Australia in orange and cream, even with stripes.
John Turbull, Author provided
Two spindly shrimp beneath coral
A pair of banded cleaner shrimp, which grow to 9cm long. They advertise their fish cleaning services with their distinct banding and white antennae.
John Turbull, Author provided

A highlight of any survey dive is when you find an animal you suspect may not have been recorded at a location before, and I had several of those on this trip.

I recorded first sightings for Reef Life Survey of blue mao mao, convict surgeonfish, the blue band glidergoby, sergeant major (a damselfish), chestnut blenny, Susan’s flatworm, red-ringed nudibranch, fine-net peristernia and an undescribed weedfish.

While some of these sightings are yet to be confirmed by specialists, they gave a buzz of excitement each night as we searched the records to confirm our suspicions of a new find.

A school of large blu fish
This big school of drummer circled us for several minutes on our first survey dive at Nepean Island. If you look closely you can see one of the fish is different, in the top right. This is one of a few blue mao mao circulating in the school – and a first sighting for Reef Life Survey at Norfolk. You might also notice another species in the school, the darker spotted sawtail down the bottom of the photo.
John Turbull, Author provided
A vibrant blue ribbon-like worm with an orange stripe
Susan’s flatworm is a colourful invertebrate listed as living only in the Indian Ocean and Indonesia. This sighting from Norfolk Island is a new record in the Pacific Ocean. When I first saw this little worm at the end of a survey, I wondered if it was anything special. Just as well I took the photo anyway!
John Turbull, Author provided

Recruiting the locals

Other highlights for me included the warm welcome we received from the local community on Norfolk and the great turnout we had at our community seminar. Everyone I spoke to was supportive and encouraging when they heard we were on the island as volunteers doing surveys, and several people expressed interest in getting involved.

This is great news, as the best outcome is for local people to be trained to conduct their own local surveys.

An underwater SCUBA selfie
Tyson, Sal, Jamie, Toni and me taking an underwater selfie on the west side of Phillip Island, 10 metres below the surface. It’s harder than on land, with your fins off the ground, everyone moving and bubbles to deal with.
John Turbull, Author provided

Ideally we will return for comprehensive surveys of our 17 sites every two years or so, allowing us to plot trends over time. Only then can we hope to understand what is really happening in our marine environment, and make evidence-based conservation decisions. Having a skilled local team would make this easier and more likely to happen.

In any case, our 2021 surveys in Norfolk Marine Park, conducted by our team of five dedicated volunteers and supported by many others, give us one more essential point in time in the Norfolk series, and gave me some great memories to boot.

You can view my full photo album from the Norfolk Island survey here.




Read more:
Photos from the field: zooming in on Australia’s hidden world of exquisite mites, snails and beetles


The Conversation


John Turnbull, Postdoctoral research associate, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Gene editing is revealing how corals respond to warming waters. It could transform how we manage our reefs



Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

Dimitri Perrin, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Carnegie Institution for Science

Genetic engineering has already cemented itself as an invaluable tool for studying gene functions in organisms.

Our new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now demonstrates how gene editing can be used to pinpoint genes involved in corals’ ability to withstand heat stress.

A better understanding of such genes will lay the groundwork for experts to predict the natural response of coral populations to climate change. And this could guide efforts to improve coral adaptation, through the selective breeding of naturally heat-tolerant corals.

A threatened national treasure

The Great Barrier Reef is among the world’s most awe-inspiring, unique and economically valuable ecosystems. It spans more than 2,000 kilometres, has more than 600 types of coral, 1,600 types of fish and is of immense cultural significance — especially for Traditional Owners.

But warming ocean waters caused by climate change are leading to the mass bleaching and mortality of corals on the reef, threatening the reef’s long-term survival.




Read more:
The first step to conserving the Great Barrier Reef is understanding what lives there


Many research efforts are focused on how we can prevent the reef’s deterioration by helping it adapt to and recover from the conditions causing it stress.

Understanding the genes and molecular pathways that protect corals from heat stress will be key to achieving these goals.

While hypotheses exist about the roles of particular genes and pathways, rigorous testings of these have been difficult — largely due to a lack of tools to determine gene function in corals.

But over the past decade or so, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has emerged as a powerful tool to study gene function in non-model organisms.

CRISPR: a technological marvel

Scientists can use CRISPR to make precise changes to the DNA of a living organisms, by “cutting” its DNA and editing the sequence. This can involve inactivating a specific gene, introducing a new piece of DNA or replacing a piece.

In our 2018 research, we showed it is possible to make precise mutations in the coral genome using CRISPR technology. However, we were unable to determine the functions of our specific target genes.

For our latest research, we used an updated CRISPR method to sufficiently disrupt the Heat Shock Transcription Factor 1, or HSF1, in coral larvae.

Based on this protein-coding gene’s role in model organisms, including closely related sea anemones, we hypothesised it would play an important role in the heat response of corals.

Injection going into coral egg.
We injected CRISPR components into the fertilised eggs of the coral species Acropora millepora to inactivate the HSF1 gene.
Phillip Cleves/Carnegie Institute for Science, CC BY-NC-ND

Past research had also demonstrated HSF1 can influence a large number of heat response genes, acting as a kind of “master switch” to turn them on.

By inactivating this master switch, we expected to see significant changes in the corals’ heat tolerance. Our prediction proved accurate.




Read more:
What is CRISPR, the gene editing technology that won the Chemistry Nobel prize?


What we discovered by injecting coral eggs

We spawned corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science during the annual mass spawning event in November, 2018.

We then injected CRISPR/Cas9 components into fertilised coral eggs to target the HSF1 gene in the common and widespread staghorn coral Acropora millepora.

_Acropora millepora_ coral colony during a mass spawning event.
Acropora millepora colonies can be found widely on the Great Barrier Reef. They reproduce sexually in ‘mass spawning’ events.
Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

We were able to demonstrate a strong effect of HSF1 on corals’ heat tolerance. Specifically, when this gene was mutated using CRISPR (and no longer functional) the corals were more vulnerable to heat stress.

Larvae with knocked-out copies of HSF1 died under heat stress when the water temperature was increased from 27℃ to 34℃. In contrast, larvae with the functional gene survived well in the warmer water.

Let’s understand what we already have

It may be tempting now to focus on using gene-editing tools to engineer heat-resistant strains of corals, to fast-track the Great Barrier Reef’s adaptation to warming waters.

However, genetic engineering should first and foremost be used to increase our knowledge of the fundamental biology of corals and other reef organisms, including their response to heat stress.

Not only will this help us more accurately predict the natural response of coral reefs to a changing climate, it will also shed light on the risks and benefits of new management tools for corals, such as selective breeding.

It is our hope these genetic insights will provide a solid foundation for future reef conservation and management efforts.The Conversation

During mass spawning events, corals release little balls that float to the ocean’s surface in a spectacle resembling an upside-down snowstorm.

Dimitri Perrin, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, , Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Principal Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Principal Investigator, Carnegie Institution for Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ocean warming threatens coral reefs and soon could make it harder to restore them



Climate-driven ocean warming threatens healthy coral reefs, like this one in Hawaii.
Shawna Foo, CC BY-ND

Shawna Foo, Arizona State University

Graphic stating that at 86.9 degrees Fahrenheit, the chance of transplanted corals surviving falls below 50%

CC BY-ND

Anyone who’s tending a garden right now knows what extreme heat can do to plants. Heat is also a concern for an important form of underwater gardening: growing corals and “outplanting,” or transplanting them to restore damaged reefs.

The goal of outplanting is to aid coral reefs’ natural recovery process by growing new corals and moving them to the damaged areas. It’s the same idea as replanting forests that have been heavily logged, or depleted farm fields that once were prairie grasslands.

I have studied how global stressors such as ocean warming and acidification affect marine invertebrates for more than a decade. In a recently published study, I worked with Gregory Asner to analyze the impacts of temperature on coral reef restoration projects. Our results showed that climate change has raised sea surface temperatures close to a point that will make it very hard for outplanted corals to survive.

Coral gardening

Coral reefs support over 25% of marine life by providing food, shelter and a place for fish and other organisms to reproduce and raise young. Today, ocean warming driven by climate change is stressing reefs worldwide.

Rising ocean temperatures cause bleaching events – episodes in which corals expel the algae that live inside them and provide the corals with most of their food, as well as their vibrant colors. When corals lose their algae, they become less resistant to stressors such as disease and eventually may die.

Hundreds of organizations worldwide are working to restore damaged coral reefs by growing thousands of small coral fragments in nurseries, which may be onshore in laboratories or in the ocean near degraded reefs. Then scuba divers physically plant them at restoration sites.

Outplanting is the process of transplanting nursery-grown corals onto reefs.

Outplanting coral is expensive: According to one recent study, the median cost is about US$160,000 per acre, or $400,000 per hectare. It also is time-consuming, with scuba divers placing each outplanted coral by hand. So it’s important to maximize coral survival by choosing the best locations.

We used data from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s Coral Reef Watch program, which collects daily satellite-derived measurements of sea surface temperature. We paired this information with survival rates from hundreds of coral outplanting projects worldwide.

We found that coral survival was likely to drop below 50% if the maximum temperature experienced at the restoration site exceeded 86.9 degrees Fahrenheit (30.5 degrees Celsius). This temperature threshold mirrors the tolerance of natural coral reefs.

Globally, coral reefs experience an annual maximum temperature today of 84.9˚F (29.4˚C). This means they already are living close to their upper thermal limit.

When reefs experience temperatures only a few degrees above long-term averages for a few weeks, the stress can cause coral bleaching and mortality. Increases of just a few degrees above normal caused three mass bleaching events since 2016 that have devastated Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Map of global sea surface temperatures, color coded to show bleaching risks.
Sea surface temperatures on Aug. 3, 2020, measured from satellites. Warning = possible bleaching; Alert Level 1 = significant bleaching likely; Alert Level 2 = severe bleaching and significant mortality likely.
NOAA Coral Reef Watch

Warmer oceans

Climate scientists project that the oceans will warm up to 3˚C by the year 2100. Scientists are working to create coral outplants that can better survive increases in temperature, which could help to increase restoration success in the future.

When coral restoration experts choose where to outplant, they typically consider what’s on the seafloor, algae that could smother coral, predators that eat coral and the presence of fish. Our study shows that using temperature data and other information collected remotely from airplanes and satellites could help to optimize this process. Remote sensing, which scientists have used to study coral reefs for almost 40 years, can provide information on much larger scales than water surveys.

Coral reefs face an uncertain future and may not recover naturally from human-caused climate change. Conserving them will require reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting key habitats and actively restoring reefs. I hope that our research on temperature will help increase coral outplant survival and restoration success.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

Shawna Foo, Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With no work in lockdown, tour operators helped find coral bleaching on Western Australia’s remote reefs



Jeremy Tucker, Author provided

James Paton Gilmour, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Significant coral bleaching at one of Western Australia’s healthiest coral reefs was found during a survey carried out in April and May.

The survey took a combined effort of several organisations, together with tour operators more used to taking tourists, but with time spare during the coronavirus lockdown.

WA’s arid and remote setting means many reefs there have escaped some of the pressures affecting parts of the east coast’s Great Barrier Reef), such as degraded water quality and outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish.

The lack of these local pressures reflects, in part, a sound investment by governments and communities into reef management. But climate change is now overwhelming these efforts on even our most remote coral reefs.

Significant coral bleaching has been identified at WA reefs.
Nick Thake, Author provided

When the oceans warmed

This year, we’ve seen reefs impacted by the relentless spread of heat stress across the world’s oceans.

As the 2020 mass bleaching unfolded across the Great Barrier Reef, a vast area of the WA coastline was bathed in hot water through summer and autumn. Heat stress at many WA reefs hovered around bleaching thresholds for weeks, but those in the far northwest were worst affected.

The remoteness of the region and shutdowns due to COVID-19 made it difficult to confirm which reefs had bleached, and how badly. But through these extraordinary times, a regional network of collaborators managed to access even our most remote coral reefs to provide some answers.




Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology provided regional estimates of heat stress, from which coral bleaching was predicted and surveys targeted.

At reefs along the Kimberley coastline, bleaching was confirmed by WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), Bardi Jawi Indigenous rangers, the Kimberley Marine Research Centre and tourist operators.

At remote oceanic reefs hundreds of kilometres from the coastline, bleaching was confirmed in aerial footage provided by Australian Border Force.

Subsequent surveys were conducted by local tourist operators, with no tourists through COVID-19 shutdown and eager to check the condition of reefs they’ve been visiting for many years.

The first confirmation of bleaching on remote coral atolls at Ashmore Reef and the Rowley Shoals was provided in aerial images captured by Australian Border Force.
Australian Border Force, Author provided

The Rowley Shoals

Within just a few days, a tourist vessel chartered by the North West Shoals to Shore Research Program, with local operators and a DBCA officer, departed from Broome for the Rowley Shoals. These three reef atolls span 100km near the edge of the continental shelf, about 260km west-north-west offshore.

One of only two reef systems in WA with high and stable coral cover in the last decade, the Rowley Shoals is a reminder of beauty and value of healthy, well managed coral reefs.

But the in-water surveys and resulting footage confirmed the Rowley Shoals has experienced its worst bleaching event on record.

The most recent heatwave has caused widespread bleaching at the Rowley Shoals, which had previously escaped the worst of the regional heat stress.
Jeremy Tucker, Author provided

All parts of the reef and groups of corals were affected; most sites had between 10% and 30% of their corals bleached. Some sites had more than 60% bleaching and others less than 10%.

The heat stress also caused bleaching at Ashmore Reef, Scott Reef and some parts of the inshore Kimberley and Pilbara regions, all of which were badly affected during the 2016/17 global bleaching event.

This most recent event (2019/20) is significant because of the extent and duration of heat stress. It’s also notable because it occurred outside the extreme El Niño–Southern Oscillation phases – warming or cooling of the ocean’s surface that has damaged the northern and southern reefs in the past.

A reef crisis

The impacts from climate change are not restricted to WA or the Great Barrier Reef – a similar scenario is playing out on reefs around the world, including those already degraded by local pressures.

By global standards, WA still has healthy coral reefs. They provide a critical reminder of what reefs offer in terms of natural beauty, jobs and income from fisheries and tourism.

Despite the most recent bleaching, the Rowley Shoals remains a relatively healthy reef system by global standards. But like all reefs, its future is uncertain under climate change.
James Gilmour, Author provided

But we’ve spent two decades following the trajectories of some of WA’s most remote coral reefs. We’ve seen how climate change and coral bleaching can devastate entire reef systems, killing most corals and dramatically altering associated communities of plants and animals.

And we’ve seen the same reefs recover over just one or two decades, only to again be devastated by mass bleaching – this time with little chance of a full recovery in the future climate.

Ongoing climate change will bring more severe cyclones and mass bleaching, the two most significant disturbances to our coral reefs, plus additional pressures such as ocean acidification.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to alleviate these pressures. In the meantime, scientists will work to slow the rate of coral reef degradation though new collaborations, and innovative, rigorous approaches to reef management.The Conversation

James Paton Gilmour, Research Scientist: Coral Ecology, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus



Shutterstock

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!

Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.

Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.




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While we fixate on coronavirus, Earth is hurtling towards a catastrophe worse than the dinosaur extinction


As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.

But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.

So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.

Heatwave in Antarctica

Antarctica is experiencing alarmingly balmy weather.
Shutterstock

On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.

That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.




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Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


Bleaching the reef

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.

As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.

And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.

Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.

But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.




Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


Coal mining under a Sydney water reservoir

The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.

While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.

Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.




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Albanese says we can’t replace steelmaking coal. But we already have green alternatives


Victoria green-lights onshore gas exploration

In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.

The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.

Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.




Read more:
Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


Trump rolls back environmental rules

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.

One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.

The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.

And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.




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When it comes to climate change, Australia’s mining giants are an accessory to the crime


And so…

The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.

The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.

But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy



Author supplied

Terry Hughes, James Cook University and Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University

The Australian summer just gone will be remembered as the moment when human-caused climate change struck hard. First came drought, then deadly bushfires, and now a bout of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – the third in just five years. Tragically, the 2020 bleaching is severe and the most widespread we have ever recorded.

Coral bleaching at regional scales is caused by spikes in sea temperatures during unusually hot summers. The first recorded mass bleaching event along Great Barrier Reef occurred in 1998, then the hottest year on record.




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Since then we’ve seen four more mass bleaching events – and more temperature records broken – in 2002, 2016, 2017, and again in 2020.

This year, February had the highest monthly sea surface temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology’s records began in 1900.

Not a pretty picture

We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Great Barrier Reef region. Two observers, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, scored each reef visually, repeating the same procedures developed during early bleaching events.

The accuracy of the aerial scores is verified by underwater surveys on reefs that are lightly and heavily bleached. While underwater, we also measure how bleaching changes between shallow and deeper reefs.




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Attention United Nations: don’t be fooled by Australia’s latest report on the Great Barrier Reef


Of the reefs we surveyed from the air, 39.8% had little or no bleaching (the green reefs in the map). However, 25.1% of reefs were severely affected (red reefs) – that is, on each reef more than 60% of corals were bleached. A further 35% had more modest levels of bleaching.

Bleaching isn’t necessarily fatal for coral, and it affects some species more than others. A pale or lightly bleached coral typically regains its colour within a few weeks or months and survives.

The 2020 coral bleaching event was the second-worst in more than two decades.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

But when bleaching is severe, many corals die. In 2016, half of the shallow water corals died on the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef between March and November. Later this year, we’ll go underwater to assess the losses of corals during this most recent event.

Compared to the four previous bleaching events, there are fewer unbleached or lightly bleached reefs in 2020 than in 1998, 2002 and 2017, but more than in 2016. Similarly, the proportion of severely bleached reefs in 2020 is exceeded only by 2016. By both of these metrics, 2020 is the second-worst mass bleaching event of the five experienced by the Great Barrier Reef since 1998.

The unbleached and lightly bleached (green) reefs in 2020 are predominantly offshore, mostly close to the edge of the continental shelf in the northern and southern Great Barrier Reef. However, offshore reefs in the central region were severely bleached again. Coastal reefs are also badly bleached at almost all locations, stretching from the Torres Strait in the north to the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.



CC BY-ND

For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors. The north was the worst affected region in 2016, followed by the centre in 2017.

In 2020, the cumulative footprint of bleaching has expanded further, to include the south. The distinctive footprint of each bleaching event closely matches the location of hotter and cooler conditions in different years.

Poor prognosis

Of the five mass bleaching events we’ve seen so far, only 1998 and 2016 occurred during an El Niño – a weather pattern that spurs warmer air temperatures in Australia.

But as summers grow hotter under climate change, we no longer need an El Niño to trigger mass bleaching at the scale of the Great Barrier Reef. We’ve already seen the first example of back-to-back bleaching, in the consecutive summers of 2016 and 2017. The gap between recurrent bleaching events is shrinking, hindering a full recovery.

For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

After five bleaching events, the number of reefs that have escaped severe bleaching continues to dwindle. Those reefs are located offshore, in the far north and in remote parts of the south.

The Great Barrier Reef will continue to lose corals from heat stress, until global emissions of greenhouse gasses are reduced to net zero, and sea temperatures stabilise. Without urgent action to achieve this outcome, it’s clear our coral reefs will not survive business-as-usual emissions.




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The Conversation


Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University and Morgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.