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Byron Shire
February 8, 2023

Scientists call on public to defend coral reefs

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Bleached coral. Photo Vardhan Patankar.

The climate emergency is gathering pace as scientists continue to quantify the impacts of a heating planet and the long term viability of sustaining humanity, and the planet, as we know it. The Guardian recently reported that some of the worlds top scientists in the UN report Climate Change and Land that the climate crisis is damaging the ability of the land to sustain humanity’. However, it is not just the land that is being affected by the rising temperatures in a report released today the increase in marine heatwaves is having a far more significant impact on coal reefs than previously thought.

Marine heatwaves

Scientists have shown for the first time that during marine heatwaves it’s not just coral animals that are affected – their skeletons also start to decay within weeks. his means that the 3D coral framework which provides home to many other animals on the reef is also at risk.

The team of researchers from UNSW Sydney, The University of Newcastle, The University of Technology Sydney, James Cook University and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have shown that severe marine heatwaves not only trigger bleaching events, but in fact can lead to heat-induced mortality of the coral animal itself. They suggest that severe heatwave-induced mortality events should therefore be considered a distinct biological phenomenon, with more direct damage different from coral bleaching.

‘Until now, we have described coral bleaching as an event where the symbiotic relationship between coral and its microbes breaks down and corals lose their main source of nutrition, and the coral can die if the symbiosis is not restored,’ author Associate Professor Tracy Ainsworth from UNSW says.

‘But what we are now seeing is that severe marine heatwave events can have a far more severe impact than coral bleaching: the water temperatures are so warm that the coral animal doesn’t bleach – in terms of a loss of its symbiosis – the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains. 

‘We find that the skeleton is immediately overgrown by rapid growth of algae and bacteria,’ says Associate Professor Bill Leggat of the University of Newcastle, a co-author on the paper.

As marine heatwaves increase the team predict that rapid reef decay will become more frequent.

Unknown unknowns

Dr Scott Heron from James Cook University says this rapid dissolving of coral skeletons following severe heatwaves hasn’t been known to date.

‘Climate scientists talk about “unknown unknowns” – impacts that we haven’t anticipated from existing knowledge and experience. This discovery fits into this category. As we begin now to understand this impact, the question is how many more of these “unknown unknowns” might there still be that could bring faster and greater damage to coral reefs from climate change,’ he says.

Tell your politicians

Associate Professor Ainsworth says that the team hopes that this research will motivate the public to tell decision makers how important coral reefs are to them,  and voice the immediate need to preserve coral reefs now.

‘Across the globe coral reefs are still a source of inspiration and awe of the natural world, as well as being critically important to the communities that rely upon them. Given that the degradation of coral reefs will result in the collapse of ecosystem services that sustain over half a billion people, we urgently need actions both globally and locally that protect and conserve these truly wonderful places.’

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  1. And what are those “actions both globally and locally” the scientists suggest we take? When they know, I suggests they show us the way forward, leading by example by being the first to sacrifice the many benefits and comforts of modern day living which supposedly are the problem. No good contacting the politicians until they have a recommended solution. When they have it sorted get back to me – I will listen!

    • Globally: reduce Carbon emissions, protect rainforests and transition to renewable energies.
      Locally: install solar panels on your house, have a well insulated house to reduce energy used for heating, have a compost, avoid food waste, if you’re in a major city try to use public transport if possible, don’t eat excessive amounts of meat, tell friends and family about climate change and how individuals can help, talk to your local government, carpool to work, ride your bike more often to go places nearby, buy energy efficient appliances, don’t leave lights on, use energy efficient light bulbs, wash clothes in cold water and hang them on the clothes line instead of using a dryer.

  2. One solution would be to move the reef habitat further south than Lady Elliot Island and create from healthy coral species a new developed reef complex.
    A suggestion could be natural and artificial reefs from the Sunshine Coast to Byron Bay and maybe beyond if the scientific community allows for the adaptation of coral species to naturally occur to temperate water temperatures.
    The reef complex from anywhere where sugarcane is significant is problematic to harmful insecticide/pesticide chemical runoff, say northwards of Ingham to Cape York.
    This portion of the reef is dying except for the very outer reef which is reasonable condition when i viewed it last occasion.

  3. I can’t really see how atmospheric temperature can really change the ocean that much, a thin film of connection, and greenhouse effect operates in the upper atmosphere. But I’m just stupid of course, hundreds of scientists must be right.

    • Youre not really trying. Carbon pollution is an increasingly thickening colorless gas accumulating at our atmospheres edge, that lets sun light through but insulates the subsequent heat radiated back, thus the warming of the planet including the oceans

  4. I do not dispute the greenhouse effect, established science since the 50s, but there must be a hundred other factors at play in climate science since it is also a system of chaos theory, also established science. The general idea we can control this system is just as stupid as wanting no end pollution, which of course we don’t. But who will pay? It won’t be your rich or your scientists holding onto their ivory towers, it will be those can’t afford the extra taxes, those made carless or flightless or shipless. This isn’t about science. This is about regulation and attached to that, the new religion. Nietzsche said God was dead. Well now we have the new one.

    • No gods involved, only the laws of Physics. We are paying the price of inaction now, with deaths from heat waves, floods and droughts. The potential price is collapse of all industrialised nations and a dead heated and acidified ocean. The price of not addressing the issue is far higher

  5. I’m willing to say it: Richard Dawkins is stupid. Whilst he admits climate science is not his field, he blames the US, and Trump, and seems to dither on democratic processes. Maybe we don’t need them, he seems to say. I think he has bad memes.

  6. Actually, the US has quite a bit renewable. It makes no difference because the present state of renewable does make no difference, short of turning the whole of Texas into a solar farm. If you want refrigeration and some hot water, sorry, you’re a carbon user. If you want to live in a cave throw out your systems now and stop your proselytizing. No more cars. No more planes. No more ships. And no more Internet. No more anything. If you can’t swallow that, you’re a scepticalist like me. Enjoy your garden carrots otherwise.

    • A rapid move to renewable will provide all the energy we need. Without that move there may be no carrots. The present direction is unsustainable, that means it ends. Time to pick which way it ends.

  7. Reckoning time is here & John has simply said it in
    a couple of lines. Seeing as how we are not living
    on Mars what about a call-to-arms. Land & sea is
    on the boil.


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