New Interventions Announced To Save World’s Coral Reefs
By Sofy Robertson
As many as 50 per cent of coral reefs worldwide have been lost over the last few decades, with major deaths in recent years due to mass bleaching events brought on by warmer ocean temperatures.
The evidence of climate change has reached an overwhelming point, leading scientists to a sobering realisation: coral reefs, the sensitive ecosystems that provide a habitat for more than 25% of marine species and form a vital part of coastal communities around the globe, may not survive without radical human intervention.
At the end of November, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a 200-page interim report that identifies more than twenty intervention strategies. Although many of them are experimental, they could make corals more resilient to the effects of climate change.
An “unheard-of state of emergency” has been reached by climate scientists, who have recognised that the status quo won’t be enough to stabilise reef ecosystems in a warming world (Huffington Post). This was the warning from Stephen Palumbi, chair of the committee and a marine biology professor at Stanford University.
The latest report provided by the committee provides an in-depth look at twenty-three techniques that scientists could use to give corals a fighting chance of survival. These include relocation, genetic manipulation of coral species, antibiotic use and spraying salt water into the atmosphere to shade coral reefs. Palumbi explained that this is the “first time anyone has looked into what abilities we might have to stabilise any major world ecosystem”.
In the same way that the agricultural sector are seeking ways to account for changing climate conditions, the committee is tasked with identifying a range of resilience tools available for corals. The great news is that they have found many. Palumbi explained:
“Not all of them are usable. Not all of them will work. Not all of them are actually feasible at the scale we want. But the fact that the coral reef community is pulling together to produce this list right now is, in fact, I think, the take-home message. The toolbox is not empty.”
The primary focus of the report is to find ways of protecting corals against bleaching, a phenomenon that occurs when heat-stressed turn white after expelling their algae, which provide most of the coral polyps’ energy. If the corals are not allowed to recover free of stressors, the corals can perish. Among the reefs most affected was Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where an estimated 29% of shallow water corals died.
The International Panel on Climate Change’s report published in October warned that reefs could decline by 70 to 90 per cent if the planet warms by a further 1.5 degrees Celsius. The latest federal climate assessment, released last week by the Trump administration, concluded that the loss of coral reef ecosystems “can only be avoided by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
Palumbi emphasised at the conference at the end of November that the interventions they had cited were not a substitute for cutting carbon emissions or reducing other environmental stressors. He explained that there was still some way to go with research as so far, none of the interventions have made it beyond lab or field trials.
The project, named Interventions to Increase the Resilience of Coral Reefs, is expected to take approximately two years. The committee is due to release a second report next year which will provide a decision-making framework for world leaders to assess the risks and benefits of intervention strategies and to implement them to help protect reefs.