Scientists try to strengthen the coral reef | News, Sports, Jobs

Reef Cooperative cultural manager Tarquin Singleton swims past huge coral on Moore Reef in the Gunggandji Sea Country off the coast of Queensland in eastern Australia on Sunday. The Associated Press

KONOMIE ISLAND, Australia – Beneath the turquoise waters off the Australian coast lies one of the world’s natural wonders, an underwater rainbow jungle teeming with life that scientists say is showing some of the most clear about climate change.

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 technologies. 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.”

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, head of the long-term reef monitoring program 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 expel 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 amazing, 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.

On a recent blustery afternoon, Carly Randall, who leads the AIMS coral restoration program, 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 improve the reef “natural recovery processes” which would end up “to exceed the work we have done to maintain it despite climate change,” she says.

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

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

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