Scientists Scramble To Protect The Ocean's Coral Reefs (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Scientists Scramble To Protect The Ocean's Coral Reefs

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, we are dedicating our show to what we are calling Wild Cards. In other words, we're taking a break from our usual weekly theme and bringing you stories that are pretty much all over the place. In just a few minute we're going to go inside D.C.'s new subsidized housing, which is worlds away from the public housing projects of the past.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:29
We're also going to meet an American university student who recently made the decision to transition from living as a man named Tim to living as a woman named Sarah. But first, we're going to talk about the environment, specifically about coral reefs. These reefs take up less than 1 percent of the surface area of the ocean. But 25 percent of all living things in the ocean call coral reefs home.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:54
The thing is, corals aren't doing too well these days. And a recent scare at the National Aquarium in Baltimore showed just how fragile these organisms really are. Environment reporter Sabri Ben-Achour brings us this story.

MS. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:07
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, children ooh and aah at the colorful fish and coral waving and squirming around in the Pacific Coral Reef tank in front of them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD

00:01:16
Red and blue and red and yellow.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:19
A foot away, a fleshy colored Brent Whittaker looks on, the senior director for biological programs at the National Aquarium.

MR. BRENT WHITTAKER

00:01:26
You have all shapes and colors when it comes to corals. And actually, the colors are imparted by something called Zooxanthellae, which is a symbiotic algae that lives within the coral polyp. And the algae provides the coral with energy that it needs to stay alive, while the coral provides the algae with protection and the basic nutrients it needs.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:49
Now, one day, Whitaker came up to the tank and all the color was gone.

WHITTAKER

00:01:56
Well, think about putting your blue jeans in the laundry and putting in too much bleach. Well, they come out white. That's what happens to these corals. All these beautiful colors of this corals that you're looking at, you would come up here and now what you would see is a field of white. And that's because, again, those algae that color those corals have left.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:12
It turns out a construction crew doing renovation work was to blame.

WHITTAKER

00:02:16
What we come to find was that the lights were being left on all night long.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:20
A rise in temperature of just one degree Celsius can mess up the relationship between corals and the algae that live in them. Those algae leave, and if that cycle lasts too long...

WHITTAKER

00:02:29
They basically starve to death without them.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:31
With the corals go the fish, the eels, the shrimp -- all the things that live on reefs. What Whittaker saw in his tank is playing out over and over again in the oceans. Mary Hagerdorn is with the Smithsonian.

MS. MARY HAGERDORN

00:02:43
Globally, the numbers of corals all over the world have reduced substantially. You know, everyone has a different number, but it's going down, it's not going up or stabilizing. So if you look at the Caribbean, in many places the reefs building coral has stopped functioning as an ecosystem. Some of these populations aren't reproducing every year.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:02
Hagerdorn has already started freezing coral cells to store in cryogenic seed banks. Scientists predict that in the Central Pacific, the reefs are basically going to fry over the next century.

MS. ANNE COHEN

00:03:15
This whole area, which includes some of the most remote and pristine coral reefs in the world, is predicted by models to warm by three degrees or more by the end of the century. Now, that that is a huge rate of warming. Much more than we know corals can actually survive.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:33
Anne Cohen is with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She and colleague Kris Karnauskas were worried about this warming -- 18 different models predict it. They were looking at satellite photos of the Pacific, and saw some funny little dots.

MR. KRIS KARNAUSKAS

00:03:46
When you really zoom in with satellites and you see the relatively cold patch of water in an otherwise warm part of the ocean, suddenly kind of out of nowhere there's an enhancement of the productivity.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:01
What they found was that a few islands, just a handful.

KARNAUSKAS

00:04:04
Gilbert, the Gilbert Islands, which is part of the nation of Kiribati.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:08
At just the right spot near the equator were cooler and livelier than their neighbors. It turns out there's an ocean-long deep water cooling current full of nutrients that's fueling these islands.

KARNAUSKAS

00:04:20
When the cold, nutrient rich undercurrent passes through the island chain, some of the water is forced up to the surface, which is just like air rushing over a mountain, which can make interesting cod formations.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:35
They did some calculations with super computers and found that as the climate changes, that current will strengthen. It will be like an air conditioning unit, slowing the rate of warming by about seven-tenths of a degree Celsius.

KARNAUSKAS

00:04:48
While that doesn't sound like, you know, a lot and in this natural mitigating effect that our studies identified may not spare the corals, the perhaps inevitable warming expected for the region as a whole, that the rate of warming will be slower in these key pockets of coral life may offer them a better chance in the long run for adaptation and survival.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:12
As Cohen puts it.

COHEN

00:05:13
It's not looking good for anybody. But it's looking marginally better for a small subset of islands that are geographically well placed.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:23
She says the Gilbert Islands should get special protections so the corals there at least have a chance. George Stanley is a paleobiologist at the University of Montana. He says corals have been around for hundreds of millions of years. And they might survive climate change too. But...

MR. GEORGE STANLEY

00:05:39
Recovery of ecosystems take as long as three to 10 million years, depending on the severity of the mass extinction and the causes.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:49
And humans don't have that long to wait. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
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