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

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

By SAM McNEIL

November 18, 2022 GMT

KONOMIE ISLAND, Australia (AP) — Beneath the turquoise waters off the Australian coast lies one of the natural wonders of the world, an underwater rainbow jungle teeming with life that scientists say shows some of the clearest signs of climate change to date.

The Great Barrier Reef, battered but not broken by the impacts of climate change, inspires both hope and concern as researchers race to figure out how it can survive a warming world. Authorities are trying to buy time on the reef by combining ancient knowledge with new technology. They are studying coral reproduction in hopes of speeding up regrowth and adapting it to warmer, rougher seas.

Underwater heat waves and cyclones caused in part by greenhouse gas emissions have devastated some of the 3,000 coral reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. Pollution clogs its waters, and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish have ravaged its corals.

Researchers say that climate change is already testing the dynamic marine superstructure and everything that depends on it – and that more destruction is to come.

“It is a clear signal of climate change. It’s going to 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 sea heat waves. “It’s going to be a roller coaster.”

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RELATED: Damage and Regrowth on the Great Barrier Reef

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Billions of microscopic animals called polyps have built this breathtaking 1,400 mile long colossus that is visible from space and possibly a million years old. It is home to thousands of known plant and animal species and has a $6.4 billion annual tourism industry.

“Corals are the engineers. They build shelter and food for countless animals,” said Mike Emslie, long-term reef monitoring program manager at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Emslie’s team has seen disasters get worse and more frequent in 37 years of underwater surveys.

Heat waves in recent years have caused corals to evict countless tiny organisms that feed reefs through photosynthesis, causing branches to lose color or “bleach”. Without these algae, corals fail to grow, can become brittle and provide less to the approximately 9,000 reef-dependent species. The cyclones of the past twelve years have destroyed hectares of coral. Each of these disasters was a historic disaster in its own right, but without time to recover between events, the reef could not regrow.

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

“The reef is not dead,” he said. “It’s an incredible, beautiful, complex and remarkable system that has the ability 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 the coral itself.

To do this, dozens of Australian researchers set sail across the reef when conditions are right for spawning during a spawning which is the only time of year when coral polyps reproduce naturally when winter heats up. in spring.

But scientists say that’s too slow if corals are to survive global warming. So they don scuba gear to collect coral eggs and sperm during spawning. Back in the labs, they’re testing ways to speed up the reproductive cycle of corals and boost genes that survive higher temperatures.

One such lab, a ferry-turned-“sci-fi barge”, floats off Konomie Island, also known as North Keppel Island, a two-hour boat ride from the mainland in the state from Queensland.

On a recent blustery afternoon, Carly Randall, who directs the Woppaburra Coral Project at AIMS, stood amidst buckets full of coral specimens and experimental coral planting technologies. She said the long-term plan is to grow “tens to hundreds of millions” of baby corals each year and plant them across the reef.

Randall compared it to planting trees with drones but underwater.

His colleagues at AIMS successfully bred corals in an off-season laboratory, a crucial first step in being able to introduce genetic adaptations like heat resistance on a large scale.

Engineers are designing robots to fit a mothership that would deploy underwater drones. These drones attached genetically selected corals to the reef with boomerang-shaped clips. Corals in specific targets will enhance the reef’s “natural recovery processes,” which will ultimately “undo the work we’ve done to maintain it despite climate change,” she said.

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

(AP Video/Sam McNeil and Production/Brittany Peterson)

It’s driven political change in the country as voters grow increasingly concerned about climate change, helping to sweep away new national leadership in this year’s federal election, said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics.

The country’s former Prime Minister Scott Morrison was a Tory who was chastised for downplaying the need to tackle climate change.

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

The new government has blocked the opening of a coal-fired power station near the Great Barrier Reef, but recently granted new permits for other coal-fired power stations.

It is also continuing to invest in strengthening the reef’s natural ability to adapt to rapid global warming.

The Italian-size reef is managed as a national park by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

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

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

“As we approach two degrees (Celsius) and certainly exceed it, we will lose the world’s coral reefs and all the benefits they provide to humanity,” Wachenfeld said. He added that hosting more than 30% of marine biodiversity, coral reefs are essential to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the tropics.

The reef is “part of the national identity of Australians and holds tremendous spiritual and cultural significance to our First Nations peoples,” Wachenfeld said.

After long being abused and neglected by the federal government, Indigenous groups are now playing an increasing role in the management of the reef. The government asks their permission for projects there and hires communities to study and fix it.

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

After snorkeling in turquoise waters teeming with vibrant fish and coral, Tarquin Singleton said his people have more than 60,000-year-old memories of this “sea country” – including previous climate changes.

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

“Using this today can actually preserve what we have for future generations.”

The Woppaburra people from the Konomie and Woppa Islands barely survived Australian colonization. Now they’re forging 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, an Indigenous elder working as a liaison worker. community with AIMS.

For now, reef-scale coral farming and planting is plausible science fiction. It’s too expensive now to increase the levels needed to “buy reef time” as humanity cuts emissions, Randall said.

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

But Randall warns that robots, coral farms and trained divers “are absolutely not going to work if we don’t get the emissions under control.”

“It’s one of many tools in the toolkit that’s being developed,” she said. “But unless we can get the emissions under control, we don’t have much hope for the reef ecosystem.”

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Follow AP’s climate and environment coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment and Sam McNeil on Twitter @stmcneil

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The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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