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Study: Climate change will lead to annual coral bleaching in the Caribbean

 

Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo Credit: Paul Marshall

A new study has predicted that if current trends continue and the world fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nearly all of the world’s coral reefs, including many in the Caribbean, will suffer severe bleaching — the gravest threat to one of the Earth’s most important ecosystems — on annual basis.

The finding is part of a study funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners, which reviewed new climate change projections to predict which corals will be affected first and at what rate.

The report is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. Researchers found that the reefs in Taiwan and the Turks and Caicos archipelago will be among the first to experience annual bleaching, followed by reefs off the coast of Bahrain, in Chile and in French Polynesia.

Calling the predictions “a treasure trove” for environmentalists, the head of the UN agency, Erik Solheim, said the projects allow conservationists and governments to prioritise reef protection.

“The projections show us where we still have time to act before it’s too late,” Solheim said.

On average, the reefs started undergoing annual bleaching from 2014, according to the study.

Without the required minimum of five years to regenerate, the annual occurrences will have a deadly effect on the corals and disrupt the ecosystems which they support, UNEP said.

However, it said that if governments act on emission reduction pledges made in the Paris Agreement, which calls on countries to combat climate change and limit global temperature rise to below two degrees Celsius, the corals would have another 11 years to adapt to the warming seas.

Between 2014 and 2016, UNEP said the world witnessed the longest global bleaching event recorded.

Among the casualties, it said, was the Great Barrier Reef, with 90 per cent of it bleached and 20 per cent of the reef’s coral killed.

Credit: Jamaica ObserverUnited Nations Environment Programme

Caribbean Coral Reef Leaders Complete Intensive Fellowship at the Great Barrier Reef

Credits: Environmental Graffiti

Photo Credit: Environmental Graffiti

Coral reefs in the Caribbean are amongst the most at risk globally. The loss of reefs is also a serious economic problem in the region, where large populations depend on fishing and tourism. Having lost 80% of its corals over the last half century, mainly due to a changing and variable climate, coastal development and pollution, the Caribbean is seeking to turn the tide through partnerships. A group of five coral reef managers from across the Caribbean recently participated in an intensive three week Coral Reef Management Fellowship programme at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia – the best managed reef in the world.

The Caribbean contingent was among a group of 12 fellows, including their peers from the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Caribbean fellows are: Roland Baldeo (Grenada), Andrea Donaldson and Christine O’Sullivan (Jamaica), Michelle Kalamandeen (Guyana) and Andrew Lockhart (St. Vincent and the Grenadines).

The fellows visited government departments, research stations, farms, schools and other reef-associated operations. They experienced the Great Barrier Reef and many facets of catchment to reef management through direct interactions with a diversity of land and sea habitats, scientists, managers, farmers, educators, media, volunteers and industry leaders. The Fellowship also included home-stays with local marine scientists as part of a cultural exchange.

This was a rare and valuable experience as it brought together coral reef managers from diverse locations to gain and share expertise. Dr Kenrick Leslie, Executive Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, welcomed the successful completion of the fellowship, noting:

“This is an excellent programme to boost understanding of marine protected areas and the role it can play in sustainable development. It gives our people an opportunity to see how effective coral reef management is done in another community. Importantly, they are gaining insights from the major work being done to rectify some of the issues with the world’s longest barrier reef. It’s a unique experience.”

Citing the fellows’ exposure to an intensive leadership course at Orpheus Island Research Station, which included theory and exercises to plan, problem solve and teamwork, Dr Leslie urged the fellows to be agents of change across the Caribbean.

“At this point in our development it is important that we ensure that whatever we do, we do not make the assumption that resources are unlimited and that all our actions are resilient and our environment is protected,” Dr Leslie added.

The Caribbean and Pacific fellows are part of an Australia Awards Fellowship programme funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, titled Improving coral reef management for sustainable development in the Caribbean and Pacific. Australia Awards are prestigious international Scholarships and Fellowships funded by the Australian Government to build capacity and strengthen partnerships. The programme supports short-term study, research and professional development opportunities in Australia for mid-career professionals and emerging leaders.

The fellowship programme was organised and hosted by Reef Ecologic, an environmental consulting company with expertise on coral reef management, which was founded by former Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority employees Dr Adam Smith and Dr Paul Marshall.

“We have observed the decline of coral reefs globally and we recognized that training of future leaders is essential for turning the tide towards a more sustainable future. Australia is the world leader in coral reef conservation and marine resource management. This Fellowship is a chance to share Australia’s expertise with the world,” said Dr Marshall.

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The Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre coordinates the region’s response to climate change. Officially opened in August 2005, the Centre is the key node for information on climate change issues and the region’s response to managing and adapting to climate change. We maintain the Caribbean’s most extensive repository of information and data on climate change specific to the region, which in part enables us to provide climate change-related policy advice and guidelines to CARICOM member states through the CARICOM Secretariat. In this role, the Centre is recognized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United Nations Environment Programme, and other international agencies as the focal point for climate change issues in the Caribbean. The Centre is also a United Nations Institute for Training and Research recognised Centre of Excellence, one of an elite few. Learn more about how we’re working to make the Caribbean more climate resilient by perusing The Implementation Plan.

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Barrier Reef coral genetically altered in hope of surviving Climate Change

Coral species from different climes being mixed as a form of ‘assisted evolution’ to see if it will help them adapt more quickly to rising sea temperatures.

Coral Bleaching: Just 1C to 2C of further warming in areas of the reef already under pressure could push it beyond what it can recover from. Photograph: Dan Dennison/AP

Coral Bleaching: Just 1C to 2C of further warming in areas of the reef already under pressure could push it beyond what it can recover from. Photograph: Dan Dennison/AP

The Australian government’s marine research agency is looking to genetically alter species of coral to help them cope with rising sea temperatures, as new modelling showed the coverage of living corals on the Great Barrier Reef could decline to less than 10% if warming continued.

Scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science have partnered with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology to look at how “assisted evolution” may help corals more quickly adapt to climate change. These studies are some of the first conservation-based, non-commercial uses of genetic modification.

A study modelling the prospects of the reef using a decade of data found there was a “very high likelihood” of coral cover plummeting below 10%, with corals replaced by sponges and algae as temperatures increased.

This would take the Great Barrier Reef beyond what previous studies suggested was a key “tipping point” that would threaten the reef’s ability to recover and grow. Such a reduction, the study suggested, could occur with just 1C to 2C of further warming in areas of the reef already experiencing pressure from other impacts such as fishing and pollution. This amount of warming is virtually locked in due to the current amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The Great Barrier Reef used to be one of the more pristine examples of reefs globally, but it has suffered a decline and will continue to do so if action isn’t taken,” said report co-author Jennifer Cooper, a James Cook University PhD student who worked on the study with scientists from the UK and the US.

“Our model showed that reducing the impact of other human threats to the reef, such as overfishing and pollution, did mitigate coral decline. However, if temperature increases more than 2C the benefit of lowering threat levels may not be enough to stop further coral loss.

“This suggests that climate change, and more specifically sea surface temperature increase, is an important driver of change on the reef.”

The stark warning on the reef’s future prospects follows a period of decline that has seen coral cover drop to 14% – half of what it was 30 years ago. Climate change, pollution and a plague of coral-eating starfish have been identified as the main causes of the deterioration.

Aims is now looking at radical new ways of helping Great Barrier Reef corals deal with the rapid rate of warming and acidification of the oceans.

Initial work has begun at the Australian institute’s sea simulator in Townsville, Queensland, where different types of coral were picked shortly before their annual spawning and matched via IVF to create new hybrids. Scientists reared the coral larvae and then settled them to assess their growth into juveniles.

Coral from the central part of the Great Barrier Reef has been crossed with coral from the colder reaches of the southern reef to see if the resulting hybrid was more resilient in higher temperatures. Scientists are also looking at whether they can alter the microbial communities, the algae that live within coral tissue, so they can adapt to climate change.

It is hoped the research can speed up the evolutionary process so that corals can cope with the almost unprecedented rate of warming in the oceans. While corals can adapt to different temperatures, it usually takes thousands of years before they can evolve within gradually changing climates.

Dr Madeleine van Oppen, a senior principal research scientist at Aims, told Guardian Australia: “We can create genetic diversity and new genetic variations, and then let natural selection pick and do the rest.”

“We are trying to accelerate the process of what happens in nature, to help them to cope better. This is theoretically possible.

“We want to spend the next five years experimenting, to find out which manipulations work best. It’s an important area to invest in. We need these methods available in case we want to implement them. If we don’t, we may be too late if the situation does get bad.

“The health and coral cover of the reef has declined over the last decade, it’s a great concern.”

Scientists are increasingly looking at new ways to mitigate the impact of warming seas, such as shading corals, in case emissions are not radically cut to stave off the worst of climate change.

Unesco’s world heritage committee will consider whether to list the reef as “in danger” in June. On Monday, the Australian government submitted a report to Unesco that argued the listing was not justified due to its efforts to reverse the reef’s decline.

Credit: The Guardian

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