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Scientists Scramble To Protect The Ocean's Coral Reefs

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Marine animals are critical to the health of our oceans, and a rise of just one degree celsius will kill many corals.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Marine animals are critical to the health of our oceans, and a rise of just one degree celsius will kill many corals.

At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, children ooh and aah at the colors of fish and coral waving and squirming around in the Pacific Coral Reef tank.

"You have all shapes and colors when it comes to corals," says Brent Whittaker, senior director for biological programs at the National Aquarium. "Actually, the colors are imparted by something called Zooxanthellae, a symbiotic algae that lives within the coral. The algae provides the coral with energy it needs to stay alive, while the coral provides the algae with protection and basic nutrients it needs."

But, one day, Whitaker came up to the tank and all the color was gone.

"Think about putting your blue jeans in the laundry and putting in too much bleach," he says. "They come out white. That's what happens to these corals. All these beautiful colors in this corals and you're looking at... a field of white. The algae that color those corals have left."

It turns out a construction crew doing renovation work was to blame.

Coral reefs occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean area, but 25 percent of ocean organisms live on coral reefs. Twenty-five percent of fish consumed by humans are connected to coral reefs in some way.

"What we came to find was the lights were being left on all night long," he explains.

A rise in temperature of just one degree Celsius can mess up the relationship between corals and the algae that live within them; those algae leave, and if that cycle lasts too long, they starve to death.

Along with the coral, fish, eels, and shrimp disappear--all creatures living on the reefs. What Whitaker saw in his tank is playing out over and over again in the oceans.

"Globally the numbers of corals around the world have reduced substantially," says Mary Hagerdorn, with the Smithsonian. "Everyone has a different number, but it's going down, it's not going up or stabilizing."

Hagerdorn has already started freezing coral polyps to store in cryogenic seed banks. Scientists predict that in the South Pacific, the reefs are basically going to fry over the next century.

"This whole area, which includes some of the most remote and pristine coral reefs, is predicted by models to warm by 3 degrees or more by the end of the century," says Anne Cohen, the with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute "That is a huge rate of warming. Much more than we know corals can actually survive."

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.

"It's not looking good for anybody," she says. "But it's looking marginally better for a small subset of islands that are geographically well placed."

She says the Gilbert Islands should get special protections so the corals there at least have a chance. George Stanley, a paleobiologist at the University of Montana, says corals have been around for hundreds of millions of years. They've survived extinction events, and they might survive climate change, too.

However, she says it takes 8 to10 million years, depending on the extinction, for an ecosystem to recover.

"That's an incredible amount of time from our standpoint," she says.

And humans don't have that long to wait.

[Music: "Here's To You" by Joan Baez from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Soundtrack]

Photos: Coral Reefs

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