Great Barrier Reef

How Coral Bleaching In The Great Barrier Reef Has Impacted Its Inhabitants

Climate Change has caused countless environments throughout the world to be destroyed, ecosystems to change, and species to face endangerment/extinction. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has faced some of the greatest challenges throughout the past decade, and now, its enduring its third mass bleaching event within five years.

The last time the reef endured a mass bleaching event as intense as this one is gearing up to be, a third of all corals were killed, and fish populations declined rapidly, which also caused the specific ecosystems/species within the reef to change for the worse as well. A recent study wanted to analyze what actual effects these bleaching events have on the fish species that live among the coral reefs, as that could help us better prevent these types of things from occurring in other reefs around the world.

Embed from Getty Images

The scientists behind the international study used something called “gene expression” as a tool to understand how well fish are able to handle hotter temperatures, which is an effect of coral bleaching. According to the study, gene expression is “the process where a gene is read by cell machinery and creates a product such as a protein, resulting in a physical trait.” Using this process, scientists were able to predict which fish species would specifically be the most at risk/affected by repeated heat waves that lead to bleaching. 

The study initially began in 2015 when the researchers collected liver biopsies from several species of coral reef fish after global ocean temperatures increased by 1 degree Celsius that year, however, at the time the team of scientists had no idea how different everything would look in just 5 years; in terms of coral bleaching, ocean temperatures/acidification, and climate change in general. 

It wasn’t until one year later that things took a turn for the worse. In 2016, Jodie Remmer, a lead author on the study, along with one other researcher on the project went to the Great Barrier Reef to work on a completely different project when they realized that the ocean temperature around them read as 33°C. This was absolutely shocking in the worst way possible, as 33°C was the same temperature that Remmer claims to have been used in a climate change simulation where scientists predicted what the world would look like, environment wise, by the year 2100, meaning climate change has intensified to a much more urgent level than anyone expected by 2016.

Embed from Getty Images

After one week, Remmer claimed they watched entire patches of coral reef turn bone-white, as fish populations abandoned their homes in search of new resources for food. During that time, scientists collected genetic samples from a multitude of fish and coral species. What they were looking for is how these species “switched their genes on and off” based on environmental conditions. Some genes should always be on, and others should be regulated and used as a response to things like temperature stress (like during a bleaching event). 

The ability to turn these genes on and off is what gives all species the ability to maintain proper metabolic, respiratory, and immune responses to environmental changes. When this gene expression is compromised, so is the ability to survive, hence the massive decline in coral reef ecosystems/fish populations. 

“Our findings not only have implications for specific fish species, but for the whole ecosystem. So policymakers and the fishing industry should screen more species to predict which will be sensitive and which will tolerate warming waters and heatwaves. This is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation. Fish have been on the planet for more than 400 million years. Over time, they may adapt to rising temperatures or migrate to cooler waters. But, the three recent mass bleaching events are unprecedented in human history, and fish won’t have time to adapt,” Remmer stated. 

Remmer went on to say that her and her team’s goal has always been to protect the ocean and all of its inhabitants as much as possible. This new information and data isn’t very encouraging, however, it does give scientists and the government the sense of urgency they often need in order to justify a global response.

Great Barrier Reef

There’s Hope For America’s Great Barrier Reef

TAMPA, FLORIDA – The Florida Aquarium has made a groundbreaking discovery that could help regenerate what’s known as America’s Great Barrier Reef. The reef is found on the coast of the Florida Keys and is the planet’s third largest coral reef ecosystem. 

Since 2016, scientists and marine biologists alike have noticed a massive decrease in life within the reef. Climate change causes the waters that these reefs live in to heat up. Unnaturally warm waters cause underwater “heat waves” to occur. These waves last longer than normal heat waves on land do, due to the massive amounts of coral and other marine plant life that absorb the heat. 

Embed from Getty Images

Withstanding high water temperatures for long periods of time can cause the coral to enter a “stressed” stage. When coral is “stressed” it expels itself of algae. The algae sits on the coral and is what gives it its vibrant colors, but more importantly feeds the coral. Without it, the coral starves and goes through a process called “bleaching”. It’s called this because without it’s colors and without the nutrients the algae gave it, the coral turns into a stark white skeleton of what it once was and dies, as seen in the image above.

This process is occurring all over the globe, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which has gone through such severe bleaching, it’s only 50% the size of what it used to be three years ago.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. The staff at the Florida Aquarium have been working non stop on a project known as “Project Coral” to try to find a way to regenerate the rapidly decreasing coral populations. This past week, they reached a breakthrough.

With help from the experts at London’s Horniman Museum, scientists were able to successfully create coral egg deposits in a lab environment.

“It’s pure excitement to be the first to achieve a breakthrough in the world, our team of experts cracked the code…that gives hope to coral in the Florida Reef Tract and to coral in the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans” says CEO of the Florida Aquarium Roger Germann in an interview with CNN.

The regeneration of coral spawn for coral that is native to the Atlantic ocean has never been done before and was previously deemed as “impossible” by scientists due to the higher temperature, density and salt levels in the Atlantic as compared to the Pacific. Well, it looks like the scientists at the Florida Aquarium we’re ready to prove everyone wrong.

The focus of Project Coral was specifically to help regenerate a type of coral known as pillar corals. These corals are what make up a majority of the Florida Reef, but also are known globally as the coral closest to extinction.

“With the success of this project, as a scientist, I now know that every year for the foreseeable future we can spawn Florida pillar corals in the laboratory and continue our work trying to rebuild the population.”

The Florida scientists have worked to try to recreate the natural environment of the coral when it reproduces. With the use of coral greenhouses (large fish tanks filled with coral and coral DNA), computer control systems, and LED technology, the scientists were not only able to build a perfect replica of the pillar corals natural environment in the Florida Keys Reef, but also the exact conditions the environment is in when the coral normally regenerates itself.

This monumental moment is an important first step in the global regeneration of all the coral that has been lost to climate change. This breakthrough is not only positive for the coral, but all the many ecosystems that are dependent on these reefs.

In addition to the environment regenerating, the economy will begin to as well, hence the importance of a project like this. The amount of money that comes into Florida (or any place around the globe that is home to a famous coral reef) from tourism is what keeps many businesses alive. With less coral alive, tourists are losing interest in these normally very popular vacation spots, and thus the economy is impacted.

However, with this new advancement the future for our planets entire ecosystem is just as bright and colorful as the coral reefs themselves.