13 July, 2008

Sunday Sensational Science

From Science Daily, by way of A Blog Around the Clock, comes the news that there's a whole lotta coral reef out there we didn't even realize existed:

Scientists have announced the discovery of reef structures they believe doubles the size of the Southern Atlantic Ocean's largest and richest reef system, the Abrolhos Bank, off the southern coast of Brazil's Bahia state. The newly discovered area is also far more abundant in marine life than the previously known Abrolhos reef system, one of the world's most unique and important reefs.

Amazing that something so huge hid from us for so long. This world still has a lot of surprises in store for us. And in a time when so many coral reefs are under severe threat of extinction, it's good to know there's a whole previously undiscovered one alive and kicking.

Coral reefs are incredible things. They've been called the "rainforest of the ocean" for their biodiversity and their carbon-fixing properties. They create islands, beaches, and beauty. Check out this atoll - that's all reef. Those gorgeous, calm waters within a lagoon wouldn't be a possibility without coral.

And, like the rainforest, they're under a catastrophic threat.

This is what our reefs could end up looking like before the end of the century. Every. Last. One.

Reefs are suffering an effect called bleaching. Stress on the corals cause them to expel the algae that gives them their brilliant color - and their life. This is the result.

It's not pretty.

So it was bittersweet today, running across an article about a whole new reef system discovered, humming with life, on the same day Darksyde at Daily Kos ran a sobering post on the fact that all of this brilliance and bustle could go white and silent within the century, as reported by Reuters:

Like a tooth dipped in a glass of Coca-Cola, coral reefs, lobsters and other marine creatures that build calcified shells around themselves could soon dissolve as climate change turns the oceans increasingly acidic.

The carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere by factories, cars and power plants is not just raising temperatures. It is also causing what scientists call "ocean acidification" as around 25 percent of the excess CO2 is absorbed by the seas.

The threat to hard-bodied marine organisms, such as coral reefs already struggling with warming waters, is alarming, and possibly quite imminent, marine scientists gathered this week for a coral reef conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said.

"The threshold for (corals) could be approached by the middle of this century ... when they'll reach a point where they may no longer be able to reproduce themselves as fast as they're being destroyed," said Chris Langdon, am associate professor at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Not good. But the news isn't all bad, either: Discover Magazine has a stern warning, but ends with a message of hope from Scientific American:

The goods news is that coral reefs can recover within decades… a process that has already started to occur at some reefs in the Caribbean and Pacific. But only if they are free of man-made pressures such as water pollution, overfishing and climate change [Scientific American].

Coral reefs have suffered massively in the past, gone to the brink of extinction and then rallied. (Aside from the ancient reefs like this, which due to the vagaries of plate tectonics now does service as a beach.) There's hope that with a sustained effort at conservation, measures to reduce global warming, and a healthy understanding of what it takes to keep a reef healthy, we can ensure that we don't end up reefless.

And there's an international push to do just that:

Three oceanographic research institutions will collaborate on a global census of coral reef ecosystems aimed at estimating the numbers of reef species and determining their vulnerability to human stressors.

According to a January 23 press release from the Census of Marine Life, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will participate in this global census of coral reefs (CReefs).

The project is one of 17 coordinated by the Census of Marine Life, a global network of more than 1,700 scientists from 73 nations engaged in a 10-year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the oceans.

I don't know about you, but I find that pretty exciting.

And they're getting some help from none other than NASA:

A team of international researchers using NASA satellite images compiled an updated inventory of all "marine protected areas" containing coral reefs and compared it with the most detailed and comprehensive satellite inventory of coral reefs. The global satellite mapping effort is called the Millennium Coral Reef Mapping Project and was funded by NASA.

This is why budgets for science and environmental efforts are so vitally important. Some folks might begrudge the expenditures, but it's an investment in the future of the Earth. Considering it's where we keep all our stuff, I think it's an investment well worth making.

Our survival is intimately tied to the survival of the biosphere. But there's survival, and then there's the quality of survival. We'd probably find a way to cope with a runaway greenhouse effect, nearly unbreathable air, and the loss of the majority of the world's wildlife. Probably. We've done extraordinary things in the past. But all of this beauty should be given a shot at surviving with us.

Science can help us save it. That could be the most sensational science of all.

Each of the pictures is a hyperlink to its source. Fantastic info, and even more pretty pictures, should you have the time to click through. Enjoy!


Anonymous said...

Great post Dana. Thanks for the glimmer of hope.

Nicole said...

When my husband and I took my brother to SeaWorld last week, he was as excited about seeing the coral in the aquariums as he was about touching stingrays!

They really are beautiful, aren't they?

Cujo359 said...

Not only are coral threatened by acidification, shellfish are threatened as well.

We face the possibility of a collapse of the oceans' ecosystems in a century or two. Unless our technology advances a lot in that time, or we figure out a way to stop it, we may face extinction ourselves.

Cujo359 said...

Umm, that should be "ocean acidification".

This is why budgets for science and environmental efforts are so vitally important. Some folks might begrudge the expenditures, but it's an investment in the future of the Earth. Considering it's where we keep all our stuff, I think it's an investment well worth making.

Very wise. Too bad they don't let us make decisions on how much to spend on science, eh?