Scientists try to strengthen the Great Barrier Reef in a warming world

KONOMIE ISLAND, Australia (AP) – Beneath the turquoise waters off the coast of Australia lies one of the world’s natural wonders, an underwater rainbow jungle teeming with life that scientists say is showing some of the clearest signs yet of climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef, battered but not broken by the effects of climate change, is fueling both hope and concern as researchers try to understand how it can survive in a warming world. Authorities are trying to buy the reefs time by combining ancient knowledge with new technology. They are studying coral reproduction in hopes of speeding up regrowth and adapting it to handle warmer, rougher seas.

Some of the 3,000 coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by heat waves and underwater cyclones driven in part by runaway greenhouse gas emissions. Pollution pollutes its waters, and outbreaks of thorny corals have destroyed its corals.

Researchers say climate change is challenging the living marine infrastructure and everything that depends on it – and that more destruction is to come.

“This is a clear sign of climate change. It will happen again and again,” said Anne Hoggett, director of the Lizard Island Research Station, of the continued damage to the reef from stronger storms and ocean heat waves. “It’s going to be a rollercoaster.”

Billions of microscopic animals called polyps built the amazing colossus 1,400 miles long that can be seen from space and maybe a million years old. It is home to thousands of known plant and animal species and has a $6.4 billion annual tourism industry.

“The corals are the engineers. They provide shelter and food for countless animals,” said Mike Emslie, head of the Long-Term Reef Monitoring Program at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Emslie’s team has seen disasters grow bigger and bigger in 37 years of underwater surveys.

Heat waves in recent years have driven corals to exterminate numerous tiny organisms that power the reefs through photosynthesis, causing branches to lose their color or “bleach”. Without these algae, corals don’t grow, can become brittle, and provide less for the nearly 9,000 species that rely on reefs. Cyclones in the past dozen years smashed acres of coral. Each of these were historic disasters in their own right, but with no time to recover between events, the reef was unable to regrow.

However, in the last heat wave, Emslie’s team at AIMS noticed new corals growing faster than expected.

“The reef is not dead,” he said. “It’s a wonderful, beautiful, complex and amazing system that has the potential to recover if given the chance – and the best way to give it a chance is to reduce carbon emissions.”

The first step in the government’s reef restoration plan is to better understand the enigmatic life cycle of coral itself.

Therefore, many Australian researchers take to the seas across the reefs when conditions are ripe for reproduction in the case of spawners which is the only time each year when coral polyps naturally reproduce as winter approaches. into the spring.

But scientists say that is too slow if corals are to survive global warming. So they don’t make scuba gear to collect coral eggs and sperm during spawning. Back in labs, they test ways to speed up the coral’s reproductive cycle and boost genes that survive higher temperatures.

One such laboratory, a ferryboat retrofitted into a “ski barge”, floats off the coast of Konomie Island, also known as North Keppel Island, a two-hour boat ride from the mainland in the state of Queensland.

One recent blustery afternoon, Carly Randall, who heads the AIMS coral restoration program, stood among buckets filled with coral specimens and experimental coral planting technologies. She said the long-term plan is to grow “thousands to hundreds of millions” of baby corals each year and plant them across the reefs.

Randall likened it to planting trees with drones but underwater.

Her colleagues at AIMS succeeded in breeding corals in the laboratory out of season, a crucial step in being able to introduce genetic adaptations such as heat resistance at scale.

Engineers are designing robots that would suit a parent company that would deploy underwater drones. Those drones would attach genetically selected corals to the reef with boomerang-shaped clips. Corals in specific targets will enhance the reef’s “natural recovery processes,” which would “ultimately offset the work we’re doing to keep it going through climate change,” she said.

Australia has recently been hit by historic wildfires, floods, and cyclones exacerbated by climate instability.

That’s fueled political change in the country as voters become more concerned about climate change, helping new national leadership in this year’s federal elections, said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics.

The nation’s former prime minister, Scott Morrison, was a conservative who had the courage to minimize the need to tackle climate change.

Anthony Albanese’s new centre-left government passed legislation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and includes 43% greenhouse gas reductions by 2030. Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquefied natural gas, and she is lagging behind major industries. countries’ emissions targets.

The new government blocked a coal plant from opening near the Great Barrier Reef, but other coal plants have recently been granted new permits.

Investment is also continuing to enhance the reef’s natural ability to adapt to a rapidly warming climate.

The reef the size of Italy is managed as a national park by the British Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

GBRMPA chief scientist David Wachenfeld said, “Despite the recent impacts of climate change, the Great Barrier Reef remains a vast, diverse, beautiful and resilient ecosystem.”

However, that is today, in a world that has warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit).

“As we approach two degrees (Celsius) and certainly as we go beyond it, we will lose the world’s coral reefs and all the benefits they bring to humanity,” Wachenfeld said. coral reefs are essential to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people throughout the tropics.

The reef is “part of Australia’s national identity and has enormous spiritual and cultural significance to our First Nations people,” Wachenfeld said.

After long abuse and neglect by the federal government, indigenous groups are now playing an increasing role in reef management. The government then seeks their approval for a project and hires from the communities to study and repair it.

Multiple members of the Yirrganydji and Gunggandji communities work as guides, marine rangers and researchers on reef protection and restoration projects.

After scuba diving through turquoise waters teeming with vibrant fish and coral, Tarquin Singleton said his people have memories of this “sea country” – including past climate changes – more than 60,000 years old. this.

“That connection is embedded in our DNA,” said Singleton, who is originally from the Yirrganydji people of the area around Cairns. He now works as a cultural officer with the Reef Cooperative, a joint venture of tourism agencies, the government and Indigenous groups.

“What we have can be preserved for future generations by taking advantage of it today.

The Woppaburra people, originally from the islands of Konomie and Woppa, barely survived the colonization of Australia. Now they’re creating a new kind of unity “in a way that wouldn’t normally happen” by sharing ancient oral histories and working on research vessels, said Bob Muir, a Native elder who works as a community liaison with AIMS.

Until now, farming around the reefs and planting corals has been plausible science fiction. It is now too expensive to scale up to the levels needed to “buy reef time” as humanity reduces emissions, Randall said.

But she said the drones could be in the water within 10 to 15 years.

But Randall warns that robots, coral farms and trained divers won’t work “if we don’t get emissions under control.”

“This is one of many tools in the toolkit being developed,” she said.


Follow AP’s climate and environment coverage at and Sam McNeil on Twitter @stmcneil


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