August 15, 2013
A little more than a year ago, Australian scientist Roger Bradbury declared that it was game over for the world’s coral reefs. He referred to them as “zombie ecosystems” that were neither dead nor really alive, and “on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation.” He went so far as to suggest that it’s now a waste of time and money to try to protect coral reefs. Instead, he argued, scientists should focus on figuring out what can replace them.
His piece in the New York Times provoked a lot of feedback, much of it suggesting that he had been far too dire, that while the situation may be grim, it’s not hopeless and that the last thing scientists should do is to stop looking for ways to keep them alive.
Now, as we slide into the last weeks of summer, is Bradbury seeming more prescient? Is it clearer that we’re a year closer to the demise of one of more diverse and vibrant ecosystems the Earth has seen? Most experts would tell you no, that they’re not ready to concede coral reefs are going the way of dinosaurs. But they haven’t had much reason to be more hopeful, either.
A study from Stanford University, published last month, concluded that if carbon emissions stay near where they are now, there will, by the end of the century, be no water left on Earth that has the chemical makeup to support coral growth. The ocean will simply be too acidic.
Another research paper, published in the journal Current Biology earlier this week, suggests that without serious action on climate change, reefs in the Caribbean will likely stop growing and start to break down within the next 20 to 30 years. They’ll basically wear away. An extensive survey is being done in the Caribbean this summer to determine how much of its coral reefs has already been lost. Some estimates are as high as 80 percent.
Clouds as umbrellas
It’s reached the point where some scientists think they can no longer rely on natural forces to keep reefs alive; instead they’re developing ways to use technology to save them. A team of British researchers, for instance, believes geoengineering is called for. Their idea is to turn clouds into umbrellas that would protect reefs by bouncing more sunlight back into space.
They would do this by spraying tiny droplets of seawater up into the clouds above the reefs, which would have the effect of making the clouds last longer and cause their tops to brighten and reflect more sunlight. That should lower the water temperature and slow any bleaching of the coral down below.
Geoengineering makes a lot of people nervous because once humans starts manipulating nature on that large a scale, it’s nearly impossible to foresee all of the possible ripple effects. But they could be minimized in this case because the cloud spraying would be targeted to skies only above reefs. That said, even its boosters don’t see this as a long-term solution; at best it buys some time.
Robots that work like ants
Another group of scientists, this one based at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, is thinking even more boldly. Their idea is to set loose swarms of small robots on dying reefs and have them transplant healthy coral into places where it’s needed. Each robot would have a video camera, along with the ability to process images, and basic tools, such as scoops and “hands” that can grab the coral.
Clever, but also quite challenging. The robots, called coralbots, would need to learn to identify healthy coral and distinguish it from everything else down there. And they would need to be able to navigate their way around the ocean bottom and keep from running into other obstacles and, God forbid, healthy coral.
A key to this approach is how successful the scientists are at programming the robots with “swarm intelligence.” They would work together like ants or bees to perform complex tasks, with different robots having different roles. One might know how to spot places where coral can be planted; another might focus solely on planting.
But it could be a while before we find out if swarming robots is an answer for saving reefs. The researchers hoped to raise about $100,000 on Kickstarter, but weren’t able to reach their goal.
One piece of technology that is functional, however, is the device that’s performing the Caribbean coral reef survey mentioned above. Custom-designed lenses on three camera bodies, mounted at the end of a six-foot pole and propelled by a motorized sled, are capturing amazing 360-degree images of life on the ocean floor. See for yourself.
Here are more recent developments in the world of coral reefs, ocean life and beaches:
- Just beware of crevasse-seeking fish: CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has helped develop the first sunscreen filters that mimic the sun protection used by corals on the Great Barrier Reef. But you may have to wait a bit to take advantage of the Reef’s special powers. The filters, which are resistant to both UVA and UVB rays, may not be incorporated into commercial sunscreens for another five years.
- Where fish pray never to be caught: Earlier this month an artificial reef more than 200 feet long and designed to look like a rosary was lowered into the sea off the coast of Sto. Domingo in the Phillipines. In addition to becoming a home for sea life, the rosary reef was created with the hope that it will become a tourist attraction.
- Hard to get past the idea of glass in your trunks: Meanwhile, back on the beaches, pulverized glass may begin replacing actual sand. In Florida’s Broward County, officials are considering using finely-crushed glass to help fill in sections of beaches where sand has eroded.
- The bad old days: Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego say that the last time Earth was a “greenhouse world”–when the planet had very high levels of greenhouse gases 50 million years ago–it had few coral reefs, tropical water that felt like a hot bath and a paucity of sharks, tuna, whales and seals.
- Finally, we get jet packs, and now this?: A state agency in Hawaii has begun a review of the use of water-powered jet packs. Seems that the devices, which have become popular among tourists wanting to launch themselves over the ocean, may be doing damage to coral reefs.
Video bonus: Take a breather and see what’s going on at the bottom of the sea. Check out NOAA’s live-streaming video camera.
Video bonus bonus: See how statues are being turned into a man-made reef off the coast of Mexico.
More from Smithsonian.com
June 8, 2012
You may soon, if you haven’t already, be making your first visit to the beach since last summer. A lot has happened out in the ocean since then, although most of us probably haven’t been paying much attention. Truth is, the sea doesn’t get a whole lot of press, unless a tsunami or shark attack happens.
But, like I said, a lot of unusual things are going on in the ocean these days. Scientists have been doing some innovative research to a get handle on where all this is headed, but they are truly in uncharted waters. As marine biologist Callum Roberts wrote in Newsweek, “With an ever-accelerating tide of human impact, the oceans have changed more in the last 30 years than in all of human history before. In most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75 percent of their megafauna—large animals such as whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, and turtles—as fishing and hunting spread in waves across the face of the planet.”
Since today is World Oceans Day, here’s a rundown of 10 things we now know about the sea that we didn’t a year ago.
1. The oceans are getting more acidic every day. In fact, according to researchers at Columbia University, acidification is occurring at a rate faster than any time in the last 300 million years, a period that includes four mass extinctions. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, oceans absorb it, and it turns into a carbon acid. And that is putting sea creatures at risk, particularly coral, oysters and salmon.
2. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is even greater. The latest on that massive swirl of plastic particles in the North Pacific? It’s way bigger than scientists thought. They’ve known that it’s roughly the size of Texas. But in a new study researchers collected samples from the below the surface, in some cases 100 feet down, and they’ve concluded that the size of the mass may have been underestimated by 2.5 to 27 times. Another study found that small insects known as sea skaters have taken to laying their eggs on the plastic and that that could end up harming crabs that feed on them.
3. Coming soon: Deep sea mining. Advances in robotics, computer mapping and underwater drilling are stirring up interest in mining metals and minerals under the ocean floor. For mining companies, the prospect of finding rich veins of high-quality copper is particularly enticing. Also, later this month three Chinese scientists in a submersible will dive into the Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth–which is seen as a prelude to gearing up an underwater mining industry.
4. The Arctic meltdown could make harsh winters more likely. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive, but yet another study, this one by researchers at Cornell, reinforces the theory that warmer water in the Arctic sets off a climatic chain reaction that can result in brutal winters, like last year in Europe, or relentless snowfalls, like those that buried America’s East Coast in February, 2010.
5. Sea life needs to swim farther to survive climate change. After analyzing 50 years of global temperature changes, scientists at the University of Queensland concluded that both the velocity of climate change and the shift in seasonal temperatures will be higher at sea than on land at certain latitudes. And that means that if sea creatures can’t adapt to the rising temperatures, they may have to migrate hundreds of miles if they hope to survive.
6. Looks like tough times ahead for leatherback turtles. They’ve been around for more than 100 million years but some scientists believe leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world, may not make it through the rest of this century. They’re already threatened by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Nino cycles in their nesting grounds in Costa Rica, and scientists are predicting a climate that’s 5 degrees warmer and 25 percent drier on the country’s Pacific coast in coming decades.
7. And not such a happy future for the Great Barrier Reef, either. Industrial development in Australia is a growing threat to the Great Barrier Reef, so much so that it may be designated a world heritage site “in danger” later this year. Australia is experiencing an investment boom from Asia, with over $400 billion worth of projects on the horizon, including coal and natural gas plants and development of new ports.
8. Fukushima radiation is showing up in tuna caught off the California coast. A new study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that bluefin tuna caught off America’s West Coast are carrying radiation from the nuclear power plant in Fukushima badly damaged in a tsunami last year. Fortunately, the radiation is not at levels that would be harmful to humans.
9. Melting of ice sheets caused an ancient global flood. Analysis of coral reefs near Tahiti has linked the collapse of massive ice sheets more than 14,000 years ago to a global flood when sea levels around the world rose an average of 46 feet, at a rate 10 times more quickly than they are now. Scientists hope to create a computer model of the mega-flood, which will help them make better predictions of coastal flooding from our modern-day meltdown.
10. And yet, some creatures still find a way to survive. Scientists have known for awhile that microbes have survived for millions of years in the mud of the ocean bottom. But they couldn’t figure out how they stayed alive. Now they know. After probing sediment at the bottom of the Pacific with oxygen sensors, researchers from Denmark found the bacteria are consuming oxygen at extremely slow rates, and that what they’re consuming is organic matter that’s been trapped with them since dinosaurs walked the Earth. Yes, they’ve been chowing on the same meal for millions of years.
Video bonus: It’s hard to find a better ambassador for the sea than Sylvia Earle, who’s been exploring the deep for more than 40 years. Here’s her TED talk from a few years ago, but it’s more relevant than ever. And as a Bonus Bonus, here’s a video slideshow of some of the stranger creatures you’ll ever see, all living under the sea.