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Researchers have found a new large, detached coral reef, measuring more than 500 metres in height, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. This is the eighth known detached coral reef in the area, and the first to be discovered in the past 120 years.

Scientists aboard the RV Folker made the discovery while mapping the seafloor off the coast of far north Queensland state, according to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, who facilitated the expedition. The more than 500m tall reef is about one-and-a-half times as tall as the Eiffel Tower and three-tenths as high as the Empire State Building. 

Why Does This Matter?

Robin Beaman, the expedition leader and a marine geologist at James Cook University, told Mongabay, “It’s exciting that we can still find such unusually tall … reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. People have been mapping the Great Barrier Reef since 1770 when James Cook first sailed here. Since then, we have been progressively mapping the shallower coral reefs with technologies as advanced as airborne lidar bathymetry. But it still takes a modern multibeam-sonar equipped vessel, like the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s RV Falkor, to look in the right place and then do the 100% systematic mapping required in the deeper and more remote waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, to reveal such surprising discoveries.”

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The newly-discovered reef is about 1.5 km wide at its base, rising up to 500 m, the shallowest depth being around 40 m below sea level. It is entirely separate from the Great Barrier Reef’s main shelf edge. 

To explore the reef, the team deployed a remotely operated vehicle, the ROV SuBastian, which started at the base of the reef and worked its way up, capturing the entire process and collecting biological samples. 

Excitingly, marine life was found all the way up the reef, but near the summit where waters are warmer and submit, there was a “thriving” shallow coral reef ecosystem, according to the researchers. 

In more good news, the newly-discovered reef seemed to be mostly intact, unaffected by recent bleaching events that have plagued large areas of the northern section of the park.

The discovery of this new coral reef adds to a year of underwater discoveries by the institute. In April, scientists discovered the longest recorded sea creature–a 45m siphonophore in Ningaloo Canyon, plus up to 30 new species. In August, scientists discovered five undescribed species of black coral and sponges and recorded Australia’s first observation of scorpionfish in the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks. Finally, in February, deep sea coral gardens and graveyards in Bremer Canyon Marine Park were discovered. 

Featured image by: Schmidt Ocean Institute

A new study has found that warmer ocean temperatures driven by the climate crisis have caused Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to lose more than half of its corals since 1995, which researchers say will continue unless drastic action is taken to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. 

A variety of corals in the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, suffered a decline over the past quarter-century, with the most drastic falls occurring after mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. In August 2019, the outlook of the reef was downgraded to “very poor’ and this year, the reef suffered its third mass bleaching event in five years

The researchers of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and conducted at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Queensland, assessed the health and size of coral colonies across the reef from 1995 to 2017. It found that populations had dropped by more than 50% in all coral sizes and species, but especially in branching and table-shaped corals, the large, structural species which provide habitats for fish and other marine life. 

Terence Hughes, one of the researchers, says, “We used to think the Great Barrier Reef is protected by its sheer size- but our results show that even the world’s largest and relatively well-protected reef system is increasingly compromised and in decline.” 

Corals are able to recover if conditions return to normal, but it can take decades. We are living in a world where anthropogenic changes will warm the planet for decades to come before any climate action begins to take effect, so conditions in the reef are unlikely to return to normal in time for a full recovery.

You might also like: How the Maldives is Saving its Coral Reefs

According to the BBC, a 2019 study found that damaged corals struggled to recover because most of the adult corals had died. According to lead author Dr Andy Dietzel, a healthy coral population should have millions of baby coral as well as many large ones. The ability of the reef to recover has been compromised because there are fewer babies, and fewer large breeding adults.

The reef was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance,” but the past decade has seen the reef damaged by warmer seas which have killed off coral and other sea life and sped up the growth of algae and other contaminants. 

On Twitter, Hughes took aim at government leaders and particularly the “Murdoch press”- referring to Rupert Murdoch, whose titles account for nearly two-thirds of metropolitan circulation in Australia and who famously ignore or vilify climate change research- for ignoring the study. The Australian government has repeatedly resisted calls to reduce carbon emissions even as heat waves, droughts and fires continue to ravage the country. 

The UN has warned that if global temperature rise reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, 90% of the world’s corals will be wiped out. 

All hope is not lost however. At the local level, nitrogen pollution, which exacerbates bleaching, can be controlled by controlling and mitigating fertiliser and sewage runoff, according to a study. As corals account for billions of dollars in global tourism for many countries around the world, especially Australia, it is certainly in their best interests to mitigate their carbon emissions.

Scientists have discovered dozens of new coral species on a recent expedition along the Great Barrier Reef, a find that will provide insights to aid conservation and management. However, researchers have warned of complacency and say that a lot more needs to be done for the marvel that has experienced three mass bleaching events in five years. 

The 21-day expedition in early January saw a team of researchers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), James Cook University (JCU) and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) observe the Great Barrier Reef by collecting coral samples and recording the aquatic life they found. The expedition ranged from the Capricorn Bunkers off Gladstone to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.

What is coral reef bleaching?

The Great Barrier Reef experienced mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and early this year. Bleaching is how coral reacts to ocean temperature changes. Symbiotic algae live in the corals’ tissues and turn the entire reef section white when exposed to these warmer temperatures for an extended period of time, eventually killing the coral.

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New Coral Species

Associate Professor of Marine Science from KAUST, Dr. Francesca Benzoni, stated in a local interview, “On almost every dive we were finding new species of corals that have never been accurately described and classified.” 

Their findings led the researchers to conclude that the biodiversity of some coral groups could be at least three times greater than initially believed.

Additionally, the findings of the expedition revealed that one hard coral species, Acropora hyacinthus, previously thought to be a single species, is potentially five different species that all live relatively close together. The team also surveyed black corals on the reef for the first time.

The research also showed the discovery of a number of species of coral not previously seen on the reef.

These findings will aid in management and conservation of the Great Barrier Reef, by indicating the quantity of coral species, how common they are and the locations of specific coral species, which will impact scientists and biologists who use the Great Barrier Reef for different kinds of research. As the weeks and months progress, management professionals in conservation will need to readjust how they record findings from the reef and consider if any other corals could present new species as well.

This expedition’s findings will alter scientific studies and change how environmental companies protect and preserve the environment regarding climate change monitoring. 

Further dives will focus on how common these new coral species are on the reef and if they’re widespread. Scientists will begin to look at previously known corals differently and plan future projects that will catalog every new finding. 

Based on how they store information and comb through coral species, diving teams could change how experts manage the Great Barrier Reef and view other corals from around the world. The taxonomy field will become a new focus and shed light on hard and soft corals, both cataloged and newly discovered.

They say, “Understanding the diversity of species on the reef underpins virtually every area of research and conservation.”

While news of this new coral species is positive, the researchers have called for more research and funding to be able to ‘reassess the taxonomy of common groups found on the reef, including hard, soft and black corals’. Additionally, they call for countries to reduce carbon emissions to avoid catastrophic ocean warming that would decimate coral reefs globally. The IPCC has warned that even if warming is limited to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target outlined in the Paris Agreement, ‘almost all warm-water coral reefs are projected to suffer significant losses of area and local extinctions’. 

However, the UN Environment Programme said in late 2019 that even if countries meet their Paris commitments, the world is heading for a 3.2 degree Celsius global temperature rise over pre-industrial levels. This makes it all the more important that countries reduce their carbon emissions and create policies and incentives for companies to do the same to avoid even more destructive climate impacts.

Featured image by: G. Lamar

Coral is essential for life on earth. At the same time, it is one of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems, directly impacted by global ocean warming from anthropogenic climate change. The Great Barrier Reef, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites known for its ‘enormous scientific and intrinsic importance’, has just undergone its third mass bleaching event in five years, affecting 25% of the entire reef. How do we save this marvel before it’s too late?

UNESCO has warned that coral reefs across all World Heritage Sites will cease to exist by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are kept at business-as-usual levels. The IPCC says that limiting global warming to 1.5C rather than 2C or above will mean the difference between survival and loss of the majority of coral ecosystems. Such a scenario will have disastrous effects on the interconnected marine ecosystem: whilst coral only covers 0.1% of the ocean floor globally, 25% of marine life depends on coral for their life cycles. The earth’s oceans are also the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing carbon dioxide in algae, vegetation and coral. 

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is a reaction to heat stress. When corals are immersed in warmer-than-average water for extended periods of time, the algae- zooxanthellae– which lives inside coral tissue, gets expelled. This provides food and colour and helps corals to reproduce, and thus this expulsion results in coral becoming ‘bleached’ and losing its colour. Severe bleaching can kill corals, but they also have the potential to recover if temperatures stabilise- yet the climate crisis is increasing both the frequency and severity of bleaching events. 

Coral Bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef

Current surveys of the most recent bleaching incident in the Great Barrier Reef estimate that the impacts are more severe and widespread than all previously recorded outbreaks. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the severity of the damage varied, but some areas that had been spared during mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 (where 20% of shallow water reefs were bleached) had now experienced moderate or severe bleaching. Experts have suggested that the trends of bleaching suggest that it will become a near-annual event. 

In 2019, Australia downgraded its outlook on the reef from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’ due to climate change risks. Tropical coral reefs tend to be at a higher risk of bleaching during times when the Pacific Ocean experiences the ‘El Niño’ effect: a climate pattern that occurs when sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean rise to above-normal levels for an extended period of time. Such a process is likely to be intensified by rising global temperatures; one study suggests that strong El Niño events could double in frequency in the future due to the climate crisis: the potential for unprecedented interactions between El Niño and anthropogenic  global warming is significant, with coral bleaching just one of the ecosystems set to suffer. 

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how can we save the great barrier reef
Figure 1: Showing the spread of bleaching in the 2016 and 17 cases. Source

According to Dr Mark Eakin, coordinator of Coral Reef Watch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is a risk that this mass bleaching could mark the start of a global-scale bleaching event. The main driving force of this cannot be ascribed to El Niño as it is currently in a neutral year, indicating more towards anthropogenic climate change effects: February was recorded as the hottest month for the Great Barrier Reef on record. 

However, some areas of the 2 300km marine park are hardly affected: the authority noted that reefs in the northern and central parts, including near Cairns and Port Douglas, experienced moderate bleaching, and most corals there should recover. Many deeper ocean reefs are avoiding the bleaching entirely.

Aside from its ecological importance, the Great Barrier Reef also provides significant economic value. Its overall economic value has been estimated at $56 billion (AUD), with an annual national contribution of $6.4 billion and generating 64 000 jobs. Protection of the reef must be incorporated in economic models in order to shift thinking into a model whereby coral is treated as an asset that must be conserved. 

How to Protect the Great Barrier Reef from Climate Change

Changes to the reef must be monitored closely, with an overall objective of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. As the IUCN put it: “Limiting global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, provides the only chance for the survival of coral reefs globally.” 

But scientists in Australia have two key questions regarding the Reef’s future: will governments around the world stick to, and improve on, cuts to greenhouse gases, and if so, how closely will this keep warming to 1.5C? The second question lies in the success of potential adaptation measures. The most recent bleaching episode is fairly patchy, indicating that areas of the reef that have avoided bleaching can still be managed: a combination of prevention and adaptation are crucial for the Great Barrier Reef’s future. 

According to Professor Peter Mumby, Professor of Coral Reef Ecology at the University of Queensland and Chief Scientist at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a potential avenue for study lies in the scale and diversity of the reef. The reef is made up of 4 000 diverse reefs, 100 of which have been identified as well spread, well connected and currently experiencing cooler ocean temperatures, suggesting there is hope for survival. Focusing attention on the health and sustainability of these reefs, therefore, is crucial. 

One particular area of study is ‘assisted gene flow’, proposed by The Australian Institute of Marine Sciences– a process much like IVF for corals. Corals with better heat tolerance, found to be an hereditary trait in corals, can be selected and captured to grow in a lab setting and subsequently dispersed into the ocean for greater resilience. An experiment with 90 parent specimens from three parts of the reef grew 7 500 offspring and subjected them to temperatures of up to 2C warming and related levels of CO2. Many of these corals survived, suggesting that all hope for coral is not lost. Dr Zoe Richards explains the process further: 

“The whole goal of a lot of these interventions is to work with species that can be successful on their own. We won’t be able to work with 600 species of corals, but we could probably work with 20 that fill the functional roles of a healthy reef community.

Further, the Australian government has recently backed over 40 concepts in a $150 million research and development programme. The concepts include creating fog and mist over smaller reef areas, using micro-bubbles, ultra-thin natural films and farmed algae to reduce light over smaller areas, stabilising and enhancing damaged reefs with mesh, frames, concrete shapes and 3D printed forms to recreate the complexity of natural reefs and breeding corals that are naturally more heat tolerant and then using their larvae in mass dispersal.

David Mead, who helped coordinate the feasibility study, says, “If we can get the science right and intervene on the reef at scale to build that resilience, then the benefits for Australia environmentally, socially and economically, especially for reef communities, is going to be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

Read the latest environmental news that made the headlines around the world this week on Earth.Org’s Weekly News Roundup.

Nearly one in five of Australia’s big polluters breached government-set emissions limits last year

Data from the Australian government’s Clean Energy Regulator shows that nearly one in five of Australia’s big polluting industrial sites increased greenhouse gas emissions above government-set limits last year.  

Combined, they emitted about 790 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide more than they would have had they stayed within their limit set before the start of the year. Companies in breach of these limits without good reason must either buy carbon credits or pay a penalty to offset those emissions, but they went unpenalised. 

Climate-damaging products should come with smoking-style warnings, experts say

Warnings similar to those found on cigarette packets should appear on high-carbon products, from airline tickets and energy bills to petrol pumps, a group of public health experts writing for the British Medical Journal believe. 

The experts say that the labels would be a cheap but highly effective intervention that would make consumers aware of the impact of their purchases on climate breakdown. High- carbon health labels could show pictures of damaged lungs from air pollution, or highlight severe weather such as flooding and heatwaves. Warnings in other countries could include the increased spread of dengue fever and malaria driven by global heating. 

Great Barrier Reef’s latest bleaching confirmed by marine park authority

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has confirmed the natural landmark has suffered a third mass coral bleaching episode in five years, attributing it to the accumulation of heat, particularly through February. The severity of the damage varied, but some areas that had been spared during mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 had now experienced moderate or severe bleaching. About half of the reef’s shallow water corals bleached and died in 2016 and 2017. 

It noted that reefs in the northern and central parts, including near Cairns and Port Douglas, experienced moderate bleaching, and most corals there should recover. Some pockets of the reef remain unaffected by bleaching. 

Nightingales at Risk Due to Shorter Wings Caused by Climate Crisis

Spanish researchers examining wing sizes of two nightingale populations in central Spain have found that the average wing length relative to their body size has fallen over the past two decades. The study says that natural selection driven by climate change is causing the birds to evolve shorter wings. 

In recent decades, the timing of spring has shifted in central Spain and summer droughts have become longer and more intense, leaving the nightingales a shorter window in which to raise their young. 

Ban wildlife markets to prevent pandemics- UN biodiversity chief

The UN biodiversity chief has called for a global ban on wildlife markets- such as the one in Wuhan, believed to be ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak- to prevent future pandemics.

Mrema said there were clear links between the destruction of nature and the emergence of human diseases, but cautioned against unintended consequences by depriving low-income communities who depend on wildlife of their livelihoods and said that alternatives are needed for these communities.

For more analysis on the loopholes of the ban that can be exploited, see Earth.Org’s article. 

For more environmental news, see Earth.Org

A new study states that it is not too late to save our planet’s coral reefs before they go extinct.

Coral Reef Extinction Facts

Coral reefs host a quarter of the Earth’s marine biodiversity and support livelihoods of more than half a billion people. But, the planet has already lost half of its coral reefs over the last three decades, and more than 90% of them might become extinct by 2050.

Corals face a number of threats including overfishing, diseases, and pollution, while the biggest of them all is climate change. The world’s largest coral reef system- the Great Barrier Reef, which is visible even from outer space- has lost half of its coral in the past two years because of extreme heat stress from global warming.

While conservationists around the globe are grappling with how to preserve the last surviving ‘underwater rainforests’, the most comprehensive study on coral reefs published last week has suggested a few ways to save them. As part of the research, an international group of 80 scientists surveyed more than 2,500 coral reef systems across 44 countries to determine how to protect them in the face of extensive damages caused by human activities and global warming.

“The good news is that functioning coral reefs still exist, and our study shows that it is not too late to save them,” said Emily Darling, the lead author of the study and a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientist leading the global coral reef monitoring program. “Safeguarding coral reefs into the future means protecting the world’s last functioning reefs and recovering reefs impacted by climate change. But realistically — on severely degraded reefs — coastal societies will need to find new livelihoods for the future.”

Examining coral abundance in the Indian and Pacific oceans, they found that many of the reef systems were full of complex species that created distinctive structures and were functioning in spite of deadly marine heatwaves in recent years.

Heatwaves had affected many coral reefs during the El Niño event between 2014 and 2017. But 450 reefs in 22 countries survived in protective cool spots. The scientists believe those areas should be the focus of urgent protection and management efforts. Previously, the Indo-Pacific reefs were also hit by mass coral bleaching and heat stress in 1983, 1998, 2005 and 2010, before the world’s most intense, longest and largest bleaching event between 2014 and 2017.

You might also like: Artificial Corals: Improving the Resilience of Coral Reefs (part II)

A marine scientist gathering data on coral reefs in the waters of Fiji. Credit: WCS

How to save coral reefs?

The researchers outlined three conservation strategies to save the reefs: protect, recover, and transform. As part of the first strategy, the international network of coral reef conservation should focus on protecting functioning coral reefs found in East Africa to Southeast Asia, the Coral Triangle, and the Pacific. The second strategy is to promote rapid recovery of coral reefs impacted by the 2014-2017 coral bleaching event. To implement the third strategy, selected coastal communities around the world should be relocated to avoid dependence on reefs that are no longer functioning.

The scientists pointed out that strategic local management can help protect corals through tools such as marine protected areas, or other management restrictions that reduce threats and keep coral reefs above functional thresholds.

“While coral reef sustainability depends largely on reducing carbon emissions, identifying reefs that are likely to respond — or importantly, not respond — to local management is critical to targeting development and management strategies to build the well-being of the millions of people dependent on coral reefs across the globe,” said Georgina Gurney, study co-author from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University

The researchers also noted that limiting global temperature within two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels is the only way to ensure the survival of reefs.

“Saving reefs will require combining local and global efforts, such as reducing local dependence on reef fish to maintain a reef’s important functions while also reducing carbon emissions to keep warming below 1.5C,” said Tim McClanahan, co-author of the study and Wildlife Conservation Society senior conservation zoologist.

Gabby Ahmadia, director of marine conservation science at World Wildlife Fund and co-author of the study said that the study would help policymakers and conservationists make informed management decisions for coral reefs and the communities that rely on them before they go extinct.


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