Relief in the Reef
Chris Manktelow discusses how the discovery of heat-resistant corals in the Red Sea offers hope amidst the climate crisis
As climate change continues to heat up the world’s oceans, coral reefs are dying. When coral gets too hot, it rejects tiny plants living inside it that would otherwise provide the coral with food. The coral then turns a ghostly white and will eventually die if the bleaching event continues.
Bleached, skeletal corals are becoming an all too familiar sight, with scientists believing that many of the world’s coral reefs could be severely damaged by the end of century, if not sooner. Yet there is one coral reef system that offers a ray of hope. Scientists have found that corals in the Northern Red Sea are more resistant to high ocean temperatures than first thought. These corals showed no signs of bleaching, even after spending one and a half months in an aquarium that was 1-2°C above the summer maximum.
Many of the world’s coral reefs could be severely damaged by the end of century, if not sooner.
The researchers think that these corals evolved their ability to survive high temperatures at the end of the last Ice Age. During this Ice Age, global sea levels dropped by 120 metres. The Red Sea was subsequently cut off and became very salty, killing everything that lived in it. When sea levels eventually rose again at the end of the last Ice Age, corals recolonised the Red Sea as it became less salty. However, temperatures in the Southern Red Sea are very high. Only corals that survived these high ocean temperatures made it through the bottleneck to cooler waters in the Northern Red Sea.
“So today we have, by sheer chance, a population in the Northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba that still remembers in their biology how to live at 33-34 degrees, but in fact they live at 27-28 degrees in the summer”, explains Maoz Fine, a biologist from the University of Eliat, in an interview exclusive to Exeposé, “It’s a gift of nature – and a gigantic opportunity to save a major coral reef system”
Fine and other scientists are calling upon UNESCO to declare the Red Sea’s coral reefs a Marine World Heritage Site to help protect them from pollution and overfishing. In another exclusive interview, Anders Meibom, a biochemist from the University of Lausanne, describes how “So far there has been very little response since soon after our call CoVID-19 received all the attention”, continuing, “That said, recently, the issue was brought to the attention of the G-20 and we are now starting to receive much more interest from leaders and policymakers in and outside of the Red Sea region.”
Fine and other scientists are calling upon UNESCO to declare the Red Sea’s coral reefs a Marine World Heritage Site
Fortunately, there is already international cooperation between scientists who want to protect the coral reefs. Fine and Meibom were involved in creating The Transnational Red Sea Centre, which brings together scientists to study marine biodiversity. The first goal of the centre is to establish an ‘ecosystem baseline’ that will assess what state the coral reefs are currently in. Through working together, scientists will hopefully be able to show regional governments that they have a common interest in preserving the Red Sea’s coral reefs – both for themselves and the rest of humanity.