Corals are ocean-dwelling invertebrates in the same phylum as jellyfish. Corals are tiny and create an exoskeleton that is fixed to something hard, like the remains of previously existing corals. So these organisms build up a geological stratum, a reef, beneath the surface of the sea, often close enough that parts of the reef are exposed at the lowest water level. The coral reef system is the substrate for one of the Earth's major ecological zones.
Corals are symbiotic with a single celled dinoflagellate, a kind of algae that combines available nutrients such as ammonia and the photosynthetic process using sunlight to grow, maintain, and reproduce. These algae provide the coral with nutrients, and the waste products produced by the corals are the nutrients used by the dinoflagellates. Depending on the species, corals may also trap tiny organisms and eat them. There are many species of both symbionts, there are multiple possible combinations of symbionts that work, and it is all very complex.
Under certain conditions, the corals are unable to provide the symbiont algae with nutrients, so the latter either die or simply abandon the relationship. Reduction in nutrients provided by the dinoflagellates further reduces the coral's bioactivity, worsening the situation, in a kind of downward spiral.
The algae symbionts provide the coral structure with its famous color, so when they abandon the relationship, the primary color of the coral structure is white, so the process is referred to as bleaching.
There are a lot of things that can cause bleaching, including disease, physical damage by storms, changes in water chemistry, and warming of the waters. Sea temperatures are elevated because of surface warming caused by human released greenhouse gas pollution, so corals around the tropics are generally more susceptible to bleaching than they have been in known history, and many mass bleaching events have been observed over the last 20 years or so. During El Niño years, ocean temperatures in certain regions can go even higher, so El Niño years are typically associated with numerous mass bleaching events. This year, we have extremely elevated ocean temperatures caused by anthropogenic global warming, in combination with an exceptionally strong El Niño, and this has caused the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest reef ecosystem, to crash.
According to the University of Queensland Global Change Institute Director Ove Hoeghguldberg, “From the tip of Cape York to the Whitsundays, the Great Barrier Reef in the east to the Kimberley’s in the west and Sydney Harbour in the south, Australia’s corals are bleaching like never before. This is the worst coral bleaching episode in Australia’s history, with reports of coral dying in places that we thought would be protected from rising temperatures.”
Coral scientist Tyrone Ridgeway adds, “Previously, scientists thought the reefs off Western Australian could withstand bleaching and that southern waters around Sydney would be too cool for bleaching — this year has shown that is not the case. It will already take several decades for coral reefs to recover from this bleaching event.”
As noted, coral reefs form the basis for a major ecosystem, but also, for a major economy. There are lots of places in the world that people visit almost entirely for the corals, or some natural feature related to the corals. In Australia, some 69,000 people are employed in a five billion dollar industry of coral ecotourism and aquaculture.
Reefs can recover. Somewhere out there on the reef there are a few surviving corals, and a few surviving dinoflagellates. If conditions return to normal, they may start to recolonize the reef surface. However, it is also possible that the coral ecosystem can be replaced with an algae mat ecosystem across large areas. Living coral reefs maintain their relative position in relation to the sea surface, and thus provide barrier effects and control the geomorphology of a huge ecosystem. An algae mat ecosystem would presumably erode more than grow (except in very protected areas), and between that and sea level rise, the barrier effect would be significantly reduced.
Also, it takes months to years for recovery to occur, and the worse the bleaching the longer it takes. We are probably entering an era where heat stress bleaching will become much more common, and more severe when it does occur. At the same time, severe and physically large tropical storms are becoming much more common in the Pacific, so the chance of a second hit from this effect during recovery is increased. In other words, over the next few decades, a major reef like the Great Barrier Reef may become bleached more often than not over much of its area. Eventually, as sea temperatures continue to warm, it may simply become impossible to maintain such reefs.
There is some hope in that dinoflagellates that can withstand warmer conditions could become predominant, or even evolve. Perhaps in a few centuries from now, reefs will adjust to new conditions. On the other hand, climate change results in higher variability of temperature conditions, not just an increase, which would make such an adaptation difficult. Keep in mind that during recent history of life (over a few hundred million years or so) there have always been reefs, but not always made and maintained by corals. The organisms that produce this important ecosystem have, in the past, gone extinct and been replaced by entirely different systems, several times. That replacement was unlikely to have been a neat and efficient process.
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This is the beginning of the end for most, if not all, of the large tropical reefs of the western Pacific, and likely beyond. And it won't take until 2100 for the worst to start to be realised: that arbitrary time marker is one borne of desperate optimism and/or insufficient consideration of the rapidity of some ecosystem equlibrium shifts.
One of the things that the benefit of future hindsight will provide is how quickly coral succumbed to a few of the beaching events of this magnitude or greater. And there are already a number of future El Niño events locked in, so the decimation is effectively guaranteed. It's an extinction debt of resulting not from a plunge below a minimum viable population size, but from the inertia of a shift in fundamental parameters relating to their bioclimatic envelope.
Roll up folks - last chance to see the largest canary on Earth.
I don't know much about these dinoflagellates. How difficult would it be to engineer them to be more resistant to higher temperatures and would that be effective at preventing coral bleaching?
They are eukaryotes, so selective breeding might work too.
Can clones from corals that didn't bleach be propagated and transplanted to bleached spots before the coral dies?
Talk about "a distribution problem". Writ large.
gah! so sad! i scuba'd in guam for a generation in the 80's and was always grateful for the beauty just below the surface. when will we ever care about the damage we are doing?
Article by Elizabeth Kolbert: Unnatural Selection
"Researchers are hoping to “assist” evolution in order to produce hardier corals and tougher trees."
"What if the qualities that made some corals hardier than others could be identified? Perhaps this information could be used to produce tougher varieties. Humans might, in this way, design reefs capable of withstanding human influence."
...and then we see the endless "campaigns against GMO reefs and forests".
David, I've tried to reply to your post a couple of times but I seem to have encountered a moderation wall. My comments can be found here:
Bah, future nature documentaries can always be filmed at the few reefs that survives and that will keep people happy when they sit in their couches looking at pictures of pretty reefs. Worst case there is archived stock photo to use. Scuba divers will simply have to switch to wreck diving, or maybe all the plastic dumped in the ocean will congeal into interesting formations.
Thomas, what're ya gonna eat when there's no fish left as a result? That plastic?
During last winter 29 sperm whales washed ashore on North Sea coasts. Cause of death just got published. Plastics. Stomachs full so they simply could no longer eat. They no longer could endure diving deep for their food and came to seas too shallow for them, and starved.