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Nature · Economy

Under attack and dying

June 12th, 2014
in:Nature, Economy
by:Itai Lahat
located in:USA

Our oceans are under attack. It has been going on since the beginning of the industrial age. Pollution, over fishing and global warming are the elements that for the last 200 years or so have been changing dramatically what most of us take for granted. Take for example just the coral reefs translated into numbers we understand better. The estimated net present value of corals worldwide is 800 billion dollars. The annual global economic value of corals is around $30 billion. Break that into numbers and you will find out that the fishery industry enjoy an annual value form corals of $5.7 billion, annual value of corals in coastal protection stands around $9 billion, and coral tourism generates a $9.6 billion.

Many marine organisms found on coral reefs produce chemical compounds that can be used to produce novel human medicines, including treatments for cancer and AIDS. A valuation model of anti-cancer drugs alone suggests that a 20 percent loss of coral reef biodiversity would equate to a market value loss of $112 billion to $1.14 trillion.

But beside the financial numbers, as a basic foundation for human wellbeing, corals are one of the most important ecosystems that we have in the oceans. Coral reefs provide benefits to billions of people. The problem is that they are dying. By some estimates, since the beginning of the industrial age, around 30% to 60% have been wiped out. As human-caused climate change has warmed the oceans, huge swathes of rainbow-colored coral that can't withstand the heat have died and turned white, a process known as bleaching. At the same time, the uptick in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has turned the oceans more acidic, which has slowed coral growth rates. And as temperatures are expected to rise, the future of coral reefs look very bleak indeed.

But some scientists try to do something about this future. One of them is Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University. In his lab he is trying to find the holy grail of corals future, Heat-resistant corals that could survive in warming oceans

For the past several years, Palumbi has been studying two particular coral populations in a lagoon along the white sandy beaches of Ofu, a small island in American Samoa. One population of Acropora hyacinthus coral – dubbed "table top coral" for its round, flat appearance – grows in water that often hits as high as 27 Celsius, which is warm for corals, but not unusual. The other reef, composed of the same species, rests just a few hundred yards away, but the water here doesn't mix as much with the cool incoming tides, and so it commonly reaches 35 Celsius. That's well warmer than corals can typically survive; hotter even than what most climate models project for the world's oceans in the next century.

And yet, these corals thrive. „They’re actually doing better under heat stress because they've adapted to express genes that produce proteins that protect them against the physiological damage of the heat," Palumbi said in an interview to the “Stanford news”.

Perhaps heat-resistant corals could be grown and transplanted to areas that are susceptible to bleaching. Some of this has been attempted in the past with more or less success, but it's very possible that with a better understanding of corals and better methods to progressively acclimate corals to new areas and seed them in existing reefs, that we could one day bring back to life some dying reefs.

Article written by:
Itai Lahat
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