KONOMIE ISLAND, Australia (AP) — Beneath the turquoise waters off the coast of Australia lies one of the world’s natural wonders, an underwater rainbow jungle teeming with life that scientists say has shown some of the clearest signs yet of climate change. shows.
Battered but not broken by the effects of climate change, the Great Barrier Reef raises both hope and concern as researchers scramble to understand how it can survive a warming world. Authorities are trying to buy the reef time by combining ancient knowledge with new technology. They are studying coral reproduction in hopes of accelerating regrowth and adapting to hot and rougher seas.
Underwater heat waves and cyclones, caused in part by runaway greenhouse gas emissions, have devastated some of the Great Barrier Reef’s 3,000 coral reefs. Pollution pollutes its waters, and crown-of-thorns starfish eruptions have devastated its corals.
Researchers say climate change is already challenging the vibrant marine superstructure and everything that depends on it — and more destruction is to come.
“This is a clear signal of climate change. It will happen again and again,” said Anne Hoggett, director of the Lizard Island Research Station, of the continued damage to the reef from stronger storms and marine heat waves. “It’s going to be a rollercoaster.”
Billions of microscopic creatures called polyps have built this breathtaking 1,500-mile-long behemoth that is visible from space and may be a million years old. It is home to thousands of known plant and animal species and has an annual tourist industry of $6.4 billion.
“The corals are the engineers. They build shelter and food for countless animals,” said Mike Emslie, head of the long-term reef monitoring program at the Australian Institute for Marine Science.
Emslie’s team has seen disasters get bigger and more frequent over 37 years of underwater surveys.
Heat waves in recent years have prompted corals to displace numerous tiny organisms that energize the reefs through photosynthesis, causing branches to lose their color or “bleach.” Without these algae, corals don’t grow, can become brittle, and are less beneficial to the nearly 9,000 reef-dependent species. Cyclones have destroyed acres of corals in the past 12 years. Each of these were historic catastrophes in their own right, but with no time to recover between events, the reef was unable to grow back.
However, during the last heat wave, Emslie’s team at AIMS noticed that new corals were popping up faster than expected.
“The reef is not dead,” he said. “It’s an amazing, beautiful, complex and remarkable system that has the ability to recover if given the chance – and the best way we can give it a chance is by reducing carbon emissions.”
The first step in the government’s reef restoration plan is to better understand the puzzling life cycle of the coral itself.
To that end, dozens of Australian researchers take to the seas over the reef when conditions are ripe for reproduction in a spawning event that marks the only time each year that coral polyps reproduce naturally as winter warms into spring.
But scientists say this is moving too slowly if corals are to survive global warming. So they put on scuba gear to collect coral eggs and sperm during spawning. Back in labs, they are testing ways to speed up corals’ reproductive cycles and boost genes that survive higher temperatures.
One of those labs, a ferry converted into a “sci-barge,” floats off the coast of Konomie Island, also known as North Keppel Island, a two-hour boat ride from the mainland in the state of Queensland.
On a recent blustery afternoon, Carly Randall, head of the AIMS coral restoration program, stood among buckets filled with coral specimens and experimental coral planting technologies. She said the long-term plan is to grow “tens to hundreds of millions” of baby corals each year and plant them across the reef.
Randall compared it to planting trees with drones, but underwater.
Her colleagues at AIMS have successfully grown corals in an off-season lab, a critical first step to introducing genetic modifications such as heat resistance at scale.
Engineers are designing robots that would fit into a mothership that would deploy underwater drones. Those drones would attach genetically selected corals to the reef with boomerang-shaped clips. Corals in specific targets will enhance the reef’s “natural recovery processes,” which would ultimately “catch up to the work we’ve done to sustain it through climate change,” she said.
Australia has recently been ravaged by historic bushfires, floods and cyclones, exacerbated by climate instability.
That has led to a political shift in the country as voters become more concerned about climate change, helping to attract new national leadership in this year’s federal election, said Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics.
The country’s previous prime minister, Scott Morrison, was a conservative who was rebuked for minimizing the need to tackle climate change.
Anthony Albanese’s new centre-left government has passed legislation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and includes a 43% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquefied natural gas and is lagging behind countries’ major industrial emissions targets.
The new government has blocked the opening of a coal-fired power station near the Great Barrier Reef, but has recently re-licensed other coal-fired power stations.
It also continues to invest to increase the reef’s natural ability to adapt to the rapidly warming climate.
The Italy-sized reef is managed as a national park by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
GBRMPA chief scientist David Wachenfeld said that “despite the recent impacts of climate change, the Great Barrier Reef remains a vast, diverse, beautiful and resilient ecosystem.”
However, that is today, in a world that has warmed about 1.1 degrees Celsius.
“As we approach two degrees (Celsius) and certainly if we pass it, we will lose the world’s coral reefs and all the benefits they provide to humanity,” Wachenfeld said. He added that as home to more than 30% of marine biodiversity, coral reefs are essential to the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people in the tropics.
The reef is “part of Australians’ national identity and is of immense spiritual and cultural significance to our First Nations people,” Wachenfeld said.
After prolonged mistreatment and neglect by the federal government, Indigenous groups are now playing an increasing role in managing the reef. The government asks their permission for projects there and hires people from the communities to study and repair it.
Several members of the Yirrganydji and Gunggandji communities work as guides, sea watchers and researchers on reef protection and restoration projects.
After diving through turquoise waters teeming with fish and vibrant corals, Tarquin Singleton said his people have more than 60,000-year-old memories of this “sea land” — including past climate changes.
“That connection is ingrained in our DNA,” says Singleton, who hails from the Yirrganydji people who are indigenous to the Cairns area. He now works as a cultural officer at Reef Cooperative, a joint venture of tourism agencies, the government and indigenous groups.
“By using that today, we can preserve what we have for future generations.”
The Woppaburra people from the Konomie and Woppa Islands barely survived the Australian colonization. Now they’re forging a new kind of unity “in a way that wouldn’t normally happen” by sharing ancient oral histories and working on research vessels, said Bob Muir, a Native elder who works as a community liaison for AIMS.
For now, growing and planting corals all over the reef is plausible science fiction. It’s too expensive now to scale up to levels needed to “buy reef time” while humanity cuts emissions, Randall said.
But she said the drones could be in the water in 10 to 15 years.
But Randall warns that robots, coral farms and skilled divers “definitely won’t work if we don’t get emissions under control.”
“This is one of many tools in the toolkit that is being developed,” she said. “But unless we can get emissions under control, we don’t have much hope for the reef ecosystem.”
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