Scientists try to strengthen the Great Barrier Reef in a warmer 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, which scientists say shows some The clearest sign of climate change.

The weather-beaten but unbroken Great Barrier Reef is fueling both hope and concern as researchers race to understand how it will survive a warming world. Authorities are trying to buy time for the reefs by combining ancient knowledge with new technology. They are studying coral reproduction, hoping to speed up regeneration and adapt it to hotter, rougher oceans.

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

Climate change is already challenging the vibrant ocean superstructure and everything that depends on it — and more damage is on the horizon, researchers say.

“It’s a clear signal of climate change. It’s going to happen again and again,” Anne Hoggett, director of the Lizard Island Research Station, said of the ongoing damage to coral reefs from severe storms and marine heatwaves Say. “It’s going to be a roller coaster.”

Billions of microscopic animals known as polyps built this stunning 1,400-mile-long giant, visible from space, which may be a million years old. It is home to thousands of known species of plants and animals and boasts a $6.4 billion annual tourism industry.

“Corals are engineers. They build shelter and food for countless animals,” said Mike Emsley, head of the Coral Reef Long-Term Monitoring Program at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

In 37 years of underwater surveys, Emslie’s team has seen the disasters grow bigger and the attacks more frequent.

Heat waves in recent years have driven corals to expel myriads of tiny organisms that power the reef through photosynthesis, causing branches to lose color, or “bleach.” Without these algae, corals cannot grow, become vulnerable, and provide fewer resources for the nearly 9,000 species that depend on coral reefs. Cyclones over the past decade have destroyed acres of coral. Each of these is a historic disaster in its own right, but without time to recover between events, coral reefs cannot regrow.

However, during the recent heat wave, Emslie’s team at AIMS noticed that new corals were sprouting faster than expected.

“The reefs are not dead,” he said. “It’s a stunning, beautiful, complex and remarkable system that has the capacity to recover if given the chance – and the best way we can give it a chance is by reducing carbon emissions.”

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

To that end, when conditions are right, dozens of Australian researchers travel across the reef to reproduce during spawning events, the only time of year when coral polyps reproduce naturally as winter warms into spring.

But scientists say that’s going too slowly if corals are to survive global warming. So they don diving gear to collect coral eggs and sperm during spawning. Back in the lab, they tested ways to speed up the coral’s reproductive cycle and boost genes to survive at higher temperatures.

One such laboratory, a ferry converted into a “science barge”, floats off the coast of Konomie Island, also known as North Keppel Island, off the Queensland mainland Two hours by boat.

On a recent blustery afternoon, Carly Randall, who runs AIMS’s coral restoration program, stood among buckets filled with coral specimens and experimental coral-growing techniques. The long-term plan, she said, is to breed “tens to hundreds of millions” of coral babies each year and plant them throughout the reef.

Randall likens it to planting trees with a drone underwater.

Her colleagues at AIMS successfully bred corals during the off-season in the lab, a critical first step in being able to introduce genetic adaptations such as heat tolerance at scale.

Engineers are designing robots to fit in motherships that can deploy underwater drones. The drones attach genetically selected corals to the reef with boomerang-shaped clips. Targeting corals would enhance the reef’s “natural recovery process,” she said, which would ultimately go “beyond what we’ve been doing to get it through climate change.”

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

Climate Analytics chief executive Bill Hare said climate change has driven a political shift in the country as voters have become increasingly concerned, helping to sweep new national leadership in this year’s federal election.

The country’s former prime minister, Scott Morrison, was a Conservative who was accused of minimizing the need to tackle climate change.

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

The new government has blocked the opening of a coal-fired power plant near the Great Barrier Reef, but has recently allowed new permits for others.

It is also continuing to invest in enhancing the reef’s natural ability to adapt to a rapidly warming climate.

This Italy-sized reef is managed like a national park by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

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

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

“As we get closer to 2 degrees Celsius (Celsius), and of course as we go beyond that, we’re going to lose the world’s coral reefs and all the benefits they bring to humans,” Wachenfeld said, adding that as more than 30 percent of marine life Home to diversity, coral reefs are critical to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the tropics.

Coral reefs are “part of the national identity of Australians and have enormous spiritual and cultural significance for our Aboriginal peoples,” Wachenfeld said.

Indigenous groups are now playing a growing role in coral reef management following a long period of abuse and neglect by the federal government. The government asks for their permission to start a project there and hires people from the community to study and restore it.

Several members of the Yirrganydji and Gunggandji communities serve as guides, rangers and researchers in coral reef conservation and restoration projects.

After diving in the turquoise waters teeming with fish and vibrant coral, Tarquin Singleton said his people had more than 60,000 years of memory about this “ocean nation” – including previous climate change.

“This connection is ingrained in our DNA,” said Singleton, who is from the Yirrganydji people in the area around Cairns. He is now a cultural officer at the Reef Cooperative, a joint venture between tourism organisations, government and Aboriginal groups.

“Utilizing it today can actually preserve what we have for future generations.”

The Aboriginal Woppaburra people of the Konomie and Woppa Islands barely survived Australian colonial rule. Aboriginal elder Bob Muir, who works as a community liaison at AIMS, said that now they are building “in a way that wouldn’t normally happen” by sharing ancient oral histories and working on research vessels. A new kind of solidarity.

Farming and growing corals across the entire reef range is plausible science fiction at the moment. As humans reduce emissions, scaling up to the levels needed to “buy reef time” is now too expensive, Randall said.

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

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

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


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


AP climate and environment reporting is supported by several private foundations.See more about the AP Climate Initiative here. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

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