Tag Archives: great barrier reef

Table corals have an important role to play in reef recovery, but they’re also quite vulnerable

Table corals could hold the key to saving the Earth’s coral reefs, according to new research.

By now, you probably all know that coral reefs around the world are struggling. Waters that are too warm and too acidic are causing corals to bleach — to eject their symbiotic algae under stress. If this happens enough times in rapid succession, reefs can see massive damage and coral death.

 Acropora coral near the Maldives. Image credits Mal B / Flickr.

We’ve been trying to find a solution to this problem for quite a while. New research may have found something that will help us, in the form of the table coral Acropora. These can regenerate habitats in reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef faster than any other coral type.

Reef Relief

“Table corals are incredibly fast-growing. Habitats in exposed reef slopes recover from disturbances at a rate 14 times higher — that’s more than two decades faster — when table corals are abundant,” says Dr. Juan Carlos Ortiz at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), lead author of the paper.

“Their large, flat, plate-like shape provides vital protection for large fish in shallow reef areas and serves as a shelter for small fishes, with some species almost entirely dependent on table corals. Even after death, these corals provide value, as their skeletons are the preferred place for young corals of all types to settle.”

Table corals, also known as plate corals, are generally found in the upper slopes of reefs (where their shape is adapted to withstand wave motions). They’re also sometimes encountered in the mid-shelf area and offshore reefs in the Great Barrier Reef. According to the study, these corals have a unique combination of characteristics. Table corals provide valuable ecological functions, are among the most sensitive coral types, and their role is threatened by a low diversity of species, the authors report.

Overall, however, the paper explains, the Great Barrier Reef would recover significantly slower if table corals declined or disappeared from the area.

Because of this, the authors suggest that protecting these corals should become an additional point of focus for ecosystem management. Selecting particular coral types based on what ecosystem function they perform, rather than (just) how endangered a particular species is, would help promote the health of ecosystems in the Great Barrier Reef, they add.

“Table corals are still frequently seen on outer reefs, but their presence shouldn’t be taken for granted as they are vulnerable to combined impacts,” said Dr. Rachel Pears, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Assistant Director, and study co-author. “These corals do not handle intensifying thermal stress well, are easily killed by anchor damage, highly susceptible to diseases, and are the preferred meal for crown-of-thorns starfish.

“The good news is there are tangible actions we can take to protect these corals such as targeted crown-of-thorns starfish control and anchoring restrictions.”

Still, while they can help, table corals can’t save reefs by themselves. This is because while they do perform important ecosystem functions, they don’t necessarily improve the reef’s biodiversity levels significantly, due to the low number of species in this class.

All of this being said, the real threat facing coral reefs is climate change. While fostering biodiversity and making sure table corals get to do their job will help, the root of the issue is the level of emissions we’re outputting into the ocean and the atmosphere. In order to fix it, we’ll all have to work together to significantly reduce these.

The paper “Important ecosystem function, low redundancy and high vulnerability: The trifecta argument for protecting the Great Barrier Reef’s tabular Acropora” has been published in the journal Conservation Letters.

Coral taller than the Empire State Building found in the Great Barrier Reef

Newly discovered 500 meter tall detached reef adds to the seven other tall detached reefs in the northern Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Schmidt Ocean.

It’s very rare to hear of positive news from the Great Barrier Reef, which has lost more than half of its coral population in the last three decades at the hand of climate change. Recently, however, Australian scientists have revealed new features inside the greatest living structure on the planet. This includes a blade-like coral whose height is taller than Manhattan’s iconic Empire State Building in some places.

The stunning discovery was made by scientists aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor, which has been surveying the Great Barrier Reef for the past year in order to map it in unprecedented detail

During an outing off the cost of Cape York in North Queensland on October 20, the researchers uncovered a ‘detached’ reef measuring 1.5 kilometers in length and over 500 meters in height in some places. They did so with the help of an underwater submersible aptly named SuBastian, which is fitted with a remotely controlled arm that can collect samples.

Credit: Schmidt Ocean.

Detached reefs such as the newly found structure are embedded into the ocean floor rather than being directly connected to the main body of the Great Barrier Reef. There are seven other known detached reefs, all of which were mapped in the 1800s. The newly found thriving coral community is the first detached reef scientists have seen in nearly 200 years.

“To find a new half-a-kilometer tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognized Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “This powerful combination of mapping data and underwater imagery will be used to understand this new reef and its role within the incredible Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.”  

According to the scientists involved in the survey, the newly-found reef is believed to be around 20 million years old. Samples collected from the reef suggest that there may be new species of coral, but it might take a couple of months before the samples are thoroughly investigated.

Finding new species wouldn’t be surprising. During previous outings this year, the Falkor crew have discovered several new species, among them the ‘world’s longest sea creature’ — a 45-meter-long, spire-like siphonophore. Other newly identified species by the Schmid Ocean expedition include five undescribed species of black coral and sponges, as well as deep-sea coral gardens and graveyards in Bremer Canyon Marine Park.

World’s longest sea creature, a siphonophore part of the genus Apolemia. Credit: Schmidt Ocean.

“This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our Ocean,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute, during a press conference.

“The state of our knowledge about what’s in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”

Help NASA save the ocean’s corals by playing a new video game

The new game will help NASA find new ways of mapping coral reefs. (Image: NASA)

In an effort to save our coral reefs, and thus helping to save the planet, NASA is calling on video gamers and citizen scientists to assist them in mapping coral reefs around the world.

In the past few years, the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley has been developing new ways to peer below an ocean’s surface using “fluid-lensing” cameras. Mounted on drones or aircraft, the cameras have assisted the agency on expeditions to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and elsewhere to collect 3D images of the ocean floor, including corals, algae, and seagrass. However, the data alone is not enough to help them gather the whole story of what is happening to corals, so they are reaching out to the public for help.

The data from the public’s help will be processed by a neural network called NeMO-Net, or the Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network. The program allows players to identify and classify corals using these 3D images while virtually traveling the ocean on their own research vessel, the Nautilus.

On each “dive,” players interact with real NASA data, learning about the different kinds of corals that lie on the shallow ocean floor while highlighting where they appear in the imagery. Aboard their virtual research vessel, players will be able to track their progress, earn badges, read through the game’s field guide, and access educational videos about life on the seafloor.

“NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people,” said principal investigator Ved Chirayath. “Anyone, even a first-grader, can play this game and sort through these data to help us map one of the most beautiful forms of life we know of.”

Coral reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean area, but provide a home for at least 25 percent of all marine species (Image: Pixabay)

As they play the game, players’ actions help train NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer at Ames to recognize corals from any image of the ocean floor, even those taken with less powerful instruments. The supercomputer “learns” from the coral classifications players make by hand, using machine learning techniques to classify on its own.

The hope is that data gathered from the game will help researchers find new ways to preserve coral reefs. A new study from James Cook University’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies recorded severe bleaching on the Great Barrier reefs during offshore dives in February and March. The study showed that some reefs had 90 percent of their shallow water corals bleached.

NASA is touting the game as both a learning experience along with being an important research tool. The more people who play NeMO-NET, they say, the more accurate Pleiades’ mapping abilities will become. After it has been able to accurately classify corals from low-resolution data included in the game, the supercomputer will be able to map out the world’s corals at an unprecedented resolution. With that map, NASA says scientists can better understand what is happening to corals and find ways to preserve them.

So while you’re currently stuck in your house under quarantine, why not help save the world while you’re at it?

You can play NeMO-NET on an iPad.

Sick reefs that sound healthy attract back marine wildlife

The world’s largest coral reef is in serious danger — and we’re to blame. Climate change — specifically the warming waters and the increasing acidity of the water from CO2 inputs — is pushing the reefs past the point of no return. Many scientists are experimenting with all sorts of methods meant to help the reef cope and recover in the face of increasing adversity. One such reef recovery technique might just be crazy enough to work — playing underwater sounds typical of a healthy reef from loudspeakers in order to attract marine life.

Researchers in the UK and Australia played audio recordings from speakers positioned underwater at dead patches of the Great Barrier Reef. Over the course of six months, researchers played a range of sounds typical of thriving coral communities, including noises made by shrimp, fish, and other reef-dwellers.

Marine life actually took this cue to start settling down in the sick reef, forming new communities. Up to twice as many fish populated the reefs where sounds were played compared to areas of similar decay that had no speakers installed. The researchers also noted higher biodiversity in areas where sounds were played, with up to 50% more species colonizing the coral.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been hampered by four mass coral bleaching events since 1998, the most recent one lasting from June 2014 to May 2017. The longest, most damaging coral bleaching event on record killed 30% of the reef. Today, experts believe the Great Barrier Reef has declined by more than half in the last 30 years

An estimated half a billion people around the world depend on reefs for income from fishing and tourism. Economic activity derived from the Great Barrier Reef alone is thought to be worth $4.5 billion annually.

Bleaching occurs when the ocean’s waters become too warm and expel the photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, which live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Without the algae, the coral dies and seaweeds take over. The main culprit is man-made climate change, which warms and increases the acidity of the waters.

If current trends continue unabated, coral bleaching might affect 99% of the world’s reefs within this century, the United Nations warns. Previously, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that tropical reefs could decline by 70% to 90% if the planet warms by 1.5ºC compared to preindustrial average temperatures — the upper limit set by the Paris Agreement. At 2ºC of warming, 99% of the world’s reefs could perish.

On this note, bringing back marine life to dead and dying coral won’t actually reverse the damage. Also, what happens to these populations once you turn the speakers off? It seems reasonable to assume that they’ll start evacuating the dead coral.

However, there is value to this approach when combined with coral transplanting. Previously, conservationists have also used other methods to restore the Great Barrier Reef such as “coral gardening”, which involves breaking up healthy coral and sticking healthy branches on the reef. 

The findings were described in the journal Nature Communications.

How a giant mass of floating volcano rock could help the Great Coral Reef

The city-sized island is made of pumice — a volcanic rock so porous and light that it floats on water. It stretches over 150 square km (58 square miles) and was produced in an underwater eruption near the island of Tonga.

Pumice islands such as this one are not uncommon in the area, though this one is unusually large. The giant formation was first spotted by satellite imagery on the water’s surface on August 9th, confirmed by sailors in the area. But the most remarkable observations came from the crew of the Australian adventure catamaran ROAM. As ROAM found itself surrounded by a sea of floating rocks “completely covering the ocean surface”.

“Rubble slick made up of rocks from marble to basketball size such that water was not visible,” the sailors wrote in a Facebook post. “The rubble slick went as far as we could see in the moonlight and with our spotlight.”

Shannon Lenz, another sailor working in the area, also captured the stunning phenomenon and posted a video on Youtube.

“We sailed through a pumice field for 6–8 hours, much of the time there was no visible water,” Lenz wrote. “It was like ploughing through a field. We figured the pumice was at least 6 inches thick.”

By now, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the Great Coral Reef. As the stone island drifts towards Australia, it will become home to countless marine creatures, Queensland University of Technology geologist Scott Bryan says.

“There’s probably billions to trillions of pieces of pumice all floating together and each piece of pumice is a vehicle for some marine organism,” Bryan said. “When it gets here, it’ll be covered in a whole range of organisms of algae and barnacles and corals and crabs and snails and worms.”

“This is a potential mechanism for restocking the Great Barrier Reef,” he adds. “Based on past pumice raft events we have studied over the last 20 years, it’s going to bring new healthy corals and other reef dwellers to the Great Barrier Reef.”

In other words, the pumice island could act as a traveling ecosystem, ultimately restocking the reef with healthy microorganisms and even corals, something which the Great Reef desperately needs. More than half of the reef has been destroyed by bleaching events, as a result of rising temperatures and ocean acidification. While this sort of event (and local intervention) can reduce or delay the damage, without an accompanying shift in global trends — the Great Barrier Reef is probably doomed.

It’s up to each and every one of us to bring forth that change.

Bleached Acropora coral (foreground) and normal colony (background), Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change killed almost 90% of the baby coral in the Great Barrier Reef

Bleached Acropora coral (foreground) and normal colony (background), Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Bleached Acropora coral (foreground) and normal colony (background), Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent, major bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef — the largest living structure on the planet — has dramatically compromised the recruitment of new corals. According to researchers, the number of juvenile corals that settled in the reef was 89% lower in 2018 than the historical average.

A bleak future

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been hampered by four mass coral bleaching events since 1998, the most recent one lasting from June 2014 to May 2017. This was the longest, most damaging coral bleaching event on record killing 30% of the reef. An estimated half billion people around the world directly depend on reefs for income from fishing and tourism. Economic activity derived from the Great Barrer Reef alone is thought to be worth $4.5 billion annually.

Bleaching occurs when the ocean’s waters become too warm and expel the photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, which live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Without the algae, the coral dies and seaweeds take over. The main culprit is man-made climate change, which warms and increases the acidity of the waters. Although some think the effects of climate change are hazy and yet to rear their head, it has actually been affecting the reef for at least 20 years. A 2018 study found that the number of ocean heatwaves has risen by more than 50% since 1925, threatening to collapse marine ecosystems all over the world, coral reefs being no exception.

Scientists believe that under normal conditions, the coral would need 10 years to bounce back. But a new study led by researchers at ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies suggests conditions are anything but normal.

The rate of new coral recruitment is abysmally low. Researchers measured how many adult corals along the reef had survived following the mass bleaching events, as well as the number of new corals that had been produced in 2018. Compared to 1990-levels, a period where there were no bleaching events, there was an average 90% decline in coral recruitment across the whole length of the Great Barrier Reef.

Typically, when one reef is destroyed, it can be replenished by babies from another reef. However, the 2016 an 2017 bleaching was so severe that in many parts of the reef there were no longer any adjacent reefs to provide offspring.

Not only does the Great Barrier Reef’s future hang by a thread, what remains of it is also morphing dramatically. Some corals are more resilient than others, which means that they now breed more, altering the coral composition. For instance, the hardest hit species is Acropora, which saw a 93% decline.

Coral reefs are complex ecosystems, so when a coral species disappears, so does the habitat for countless other species of marine wildlife.

“The collapse in stock–recruitment relationships indicates that the low resistance of adult brood stocks to repeated episodes of coral bleaching is inexorably tied to an impaired capacity for recovery, which highlights the multifaceted processes that underlie the global decline of coral reefs. The extent to which the Great Barrier Reef will be able to recover from the collapse in stock–recruitment relationships remains uncertain, given the projected increased frequency of extreme climate events over the next two decades,” the authors wrote in their study.

If current trends continue unabated, coral bleaching might affect 99% of the world’s reefs within this century, the United Nations warns. Previously, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that tropical reefs could decline by 70% to 90%, if the planet warms by 1.5ºC compared to preindustrial average temperatures — the upper limit set by the Paris Agreement. At 2ºC of warming, 99% of the world’s reefs could perish.

“Going to 2C and above gets to a point where corals can no longer grow back, or you have annual bleaching events. On the other hand, at 1.5C there’s still significant areas which are not heating up or not exposed to the same levels of stress such that they would lose coral, and so we’re fairly confident that we would have parts of those ecosystems remaining,” said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral reefs expert with the University of Queensland.

Last year, Australian scientists bred baby corals in an artificial environment and later moved them to some of the most damaged parts of the reef. Eight months later, the juvenile coral had survived and grown, lending hope that coral transplants can restore similarly damaged ecosystems, not just in the Great Barrier Reef, but around the world as well. However, this is just patchwork. The only viable long-term solution is cutting global greenhouse emission. But even if we manage to avert 1.5ºC of warming, the Great Barrier Reef will never be the same.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature.

Australia allows 1 million tons of sludge to be spilled into Great Coral Reef

Remember how a few days ago we wrote about the massive mud plume that hit the Great Coral Reef in Australia? Well, there’s another one headed for it — except this one will come directly from the port.

A plume of sediment off the coast of Queensland after recent flooding. Image credits: NASA.

Despite strict regulation against dumping things in and around the reef, port authorities have found a loophole: the law doesn’t apply to dredging spoils. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) has already given the go-ahead to the Port of Hay Point, home to one of the world’s largest coal loading facilities, to spill up to one million tons of sediment around the reef.

The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, which operates the port at Hay Point, argued in a statement that all the spillage would occur at 100 km away from the reef waters, and will cause minimal damage. However, they agree that the home is area to “coral communities [..] and coastal habitats including mangroves”, as well as “a number of protected fauna species [..] including marine turtles, whales, dolphins, dugong, migratory shorebirds and the Water Mouse,” but argue that the area “does not provide critical habitat for any protected marine species.”

“Importantly, our assessment reports have found the risks to protected areas including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and sensitive habitats are predominantly low with some temporary, short-term impacts to benthic habitat possible.”

“Risks to sensitive habitats such coral communities are predicted to be low to negligible as they lie outside of area expected to have altered turbidity and sedimentation.”

However, environmentalists and researchers say this only adds insult to injury, and places the already struggling reef at even more risk.

“The last thing the reef needs is more sludge dumped on it, after being slammed by the floods recently,” Australia Green Party senator Larissa Waters, who hopes to get the permit revoked, tells Smee. “One million tonnes of dumping dredged sludge into world heritage waters treats our reef like a rubbish tip.”

Dr. Simon Boxall from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton echoed similar concerns, saying that it will be difficult to carry out the operation in a way that does little damage to corals. If the material gets too close to the reef, it can smother the corals, and even at large distances, trace metals and other chemicals can still have a damaging effect on the corals.

“If it’s put into shallow water it will smother sea life,” he told the BBC. “It’s important they get it right. It’ll cost more money but that’s not the environment’s problem – that’s the port authorities’ problem.”

Corals, and the Great Barrier Reef, in particular, are under massive threat from rising temperatures and bleaching effects. Studies have also shown that human activity is one of the main reasons why the reef is in decline..

Great Coral Reef hit by massive surge of muddy water — visible from satellite

As if the corals didn’t have enough going against them, a massive water runoff has now spilled into the sea, straight towards the reef.

Image credits: NASA.

An unusual surge of rainfall in Queensland, Australia, has led to swollen rivers, which in turn have overflown and brought massive amounts of muddy water to the ocean. The plume is so large it can be easily seen from satellite, and has already reached the closest reefs some 60 km from the coast.

“If you look at the remote sensing images, the one that’s standing out at the moment is the Burdekin, which is the biggest river in that area,” Frederieke Kroon from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), who is part of a team which is monitoring water quality in the region, told ABC.

“Over the last two weeks, other rivers have produced large flood plumes as well, which have dissipated since then,” but they are still affecting an “extraordinarily large area,” she said.

The muddy water stops sunlight from going through the water, essentially smothering the reef and any other wildlife unfortunate enough to be in the area. The net impact of this damage is not yet clear, but researchers are worried that the longer the plume stays in place, the more damage it will do — and there are currently no strong winds to disperse it.

To make matters even worse, the mud washed into the oceans contains common farming chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus, which could kill even more corals and seagrass.

We really can’t afford to put even more pressure on the coral reef. Rising temperatures and increasing water acidity have put a tremendous amount of environmental pressure on the coral and caused massive bleaching, putting the entire Great Barrier Reef at extreme risk. In addition to these threats, the reef faces many other threats, including poor water quality, parasites, and increasing touristic pressure. Half of the Great Barrier Reef has already disappeared, and if things carry on as usual, it may very well be gone forever. Saving the reef, if possible at all, will require urgent and massive intervention, and this recent event just adds more salt to the wound.

There may yet be one very thin silver lining to this story: the murky waters might actually work to temporarily reduce water temperatures

“If you want to have a flipside to the story that would be one, yes,” marine scientists Frederieke Kroon told the ABC, “but it’s still a huge disturbance to the reef [after] the bleaching and the cyclones that we’ve had over the last couple of years.”

RangerBot.

Autonomous killer drone aims to save the Great Barrier Reef

A syringe-wielding, toxin-injecting bot will defend the Great Barrier Reef against invading starfish.

RangerBot.

It’s quite the looker, too!
Image via Youtube.

It’s definitely a bad time to be a coral. Climate change is stressing the life out of these tiny creatures (literally), causing more and more frequent bleaching events. While this is likely enough to turn most reefs into dry husks on its own, corals also have to contend with overfishing and pollution, which has sped up their decline.

And it seems that the stars are also conspiring against the Great Barrier Reef — or, more specifically, the crown-of-thorns starfish.

Unleash the robots!

Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) feed on coral, which isn’t generally a problem. If left to themselves, they keep the coral population in check, but not in sufficient numbers to damage the reef. However, there are clues that human activity (most notably agricultural runoff and port activity) has driven up their numbers to such an extent that in 2012 they were responsible for 42% of the total losses of coral, reported Terry Huges for The Conversation.

In a bid to protect the reef against this ravenous tide, Australia plans to unleash teams of killer bots on the starfish.

The idea first took root in 2015, when researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) showcased the Crown-of-thorns Starfish robot (COTSbot). The bot was capable of autonomously seeking out its targets — with 99% accuracy — and delivering a chemical cocktail to finish them off.

The same team has further refined their idea, resulting in the RangerBot. The new drone (sporting the same yellow garb) can kill starfish just as easily as its predecessor. In addition, RangerBot brings several new tools to bear — it can monitor the reef’s health indicators, map underwater areas, and it comes with an extended battery allowing it to function for eight hours straight — about three times as long as a human diver. RangerBot’s advanced design, low cost, and autonomous capability won it the 2016 Google Impact Challenge People’s Choice prize.

RangerBot can work much cheaper and more efficient than human divers for the task and can operate at any time, be it night or day. It’s the world’s first underwater robotic system designed specifically for coral reef environments using that uses only robot-vision for real-time navigation, obstacle avoidance, and complex science missions.

It is operated using a smart tablet. The researchers also made a concentrated effort to keep the bot as simple to use as possible:

“Weighing just 15kg and measuring 75cm, it takes just 15 minutes to learn how to operate RangerBot using a smart tablet,” said Professor Matthew Dunbabin, who lead the team that designed RangerBot.

“We also spent a lot of time getting the user interface as simple to use as possible so that as many of our stakeholders (from researchers, management authorities and school children) could potentially operate it with a small amount of training.”

While virtually all reefs are struggling, the Great Barrier Reef — being a designated World Heritage Site — enjoys a lion’s share of the efforts and technology dedicated to coral protection and rehabilitation. Drones, cameras, artificial reefs, and computer simulations have all been brought to bear to prevent the reef from undergoing irreversible damage.

Hopefully, these efforts will be successful and other coral reefs around the world will benefit from the lessons learned here.

“Environmental robotics is a real passion of ours and we see so much potential for these advanced technologies to transform the way we protect the world’s coral reefs,” Dunbabin concludes.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Great Barrier Reef had 5 near-death experiences so far, but this one might be its last

An analysis of fossil reef cores revealed that the world’s largest reef system has gone through multiple episodes that threatened to wipe it out over the last 30,000 years. During this timeframe, there were at least five really close calls due to all sorts of threats, such as sea level rises, temperature swings, and sediment increases.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In order to conduct their study, the researchers used underwater sonar to locate places on the seafloor — beyond the current reef — where corals may have grown in the past. They learned that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced two massive death events due to air exposure 30,000 and 22,000 years ago. In response, the reef had to move seaward in order to survive. Another two widespread reef deaths occurred around 17,000 and 13,000 years ago due to rapid sea level rise, which drove the reef back landward. And most recently, around 10,000 years ago, large sediment increase and poor water quality killed entire stretches of the reef.

The researchers part of the 10-year, multinational effort could not drill for sediments everwhere, so they can’t confirm how extensive the die-offs were. What’s certain, however, is that these five identified episodes were especially destructive. The team, led by geoscientist Jody Webster from the University of Sydney, believes that as sea level rise and other factors killed wide portions of the reef, corals managed to persist in places along the continental shelf, providing a foothold from which the entire reef could become restored.

“Our study shows the reef has been able to bounce back from past death events during the last glaciation and deglaciation,” said Webster in a statement

“However, we found it is also highly sensitive to increased sediment input, which is of concern given current land-use practices.”

Drilling for the fossil reef cores. Credit: ECORD/IODP

Drilling for the fossil reef cores. Credit: ECORD/IODP

Today, the Great Barrier Reef is 2,300 km long and can be seen from space, lounging off the coast of Queensland, Australia. It’s also dying.

The findings are important in today’s context in which the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by a new massive die-off — and this time it’s caused by us. Human activity, particularly greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, have risen the ocean’s temperature and lowered the water’s pH, making it more acidic. This combination promotes coral bleaching, which occurs when the ocean’s waters become too warm, resulting in the expelling of photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae that live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Without the algae, the coral dies and seaweeds take over.

Associate Professor Jody Webster on board the Great Ship Maya with a fossil core from the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: ECORD/IODP.

Associate Professor Jody Webster on board the Great Ship Maya with a fossil core from the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: ECORD/IODP.

According to a previous study published in Natureroughly 29% of the 3,863 individual reefs that make up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were affected by the abnormal warming. The consequences were dire: In some areas, up to 90% of the coral population died due to bleaching.

Previously, a 2016 study of 84 reefs along the Great Barrier Reef revealed that one-third of the those in the central and northern regions have died due to a huge bleaching event. Corals to the north of Cairns, which account for two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, are also massively affected, with 35% to 50% dead or dying. An estimated half billion people around the world directly depend on reefs for income from fishing and tourism. The Great Barrer Reef alone is thought to be worth $42 billion. 

“I have grave concerns about the ability of the reef in its current form to survive the pace of change caused by the many current stresses and those projected into the near future,” Webster said.

“Our study shows that as well as responding to sea-level changes, the reef has been particularly sensitive to sediment fluxes in the past and that means, in the current period, we need to understand how practices from primary industry are affecting sediment input and water quality on the reef,” he added.

Scientific reference: Jody M. Webster et al, Response of the Great Barrier Reef to sea-level and environmental changes over the past 30,000 years, Nature Geoscience (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41561-018-0127-3.

Marine heatwaves smothered the Great Barrier Reef — and it won’t get better

Extreme heat in 2016 caused far worse damage to the world’s largest coral system that initial surveys estimated. According to a new study published in Nature, roughly 29% of the 3,863 individual reefs that make up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef were affected by the abnormal warming. The consequences were dire: In some areas, up to 90% of the coral population died due to bleaching.

The Great Barrier Reef is 2,300 km long and can be seen from space, lounging off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Unfortunately, it’s dying. The main culprit is man-made climate change, which warms and increases the acidity of the waters. Although some think the effects of climate change are hazy and yet to rear their head, it has actually been affecting the reef for at least 20 years. A study that came out just last week found that the number of ocean heatwaves has risen by more than 50% since 1925, threatening to collapse marine ecosystems all over the world.

Previously, a 2016 study of 84 reefs along the Great Barrier Reef revealed that one-third of the coral reefs of the central and northern regions have died due to a huge bleaching event. Corals to the north of Cairns, which account for two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, are also massively affected, with 35% to 50% dead or dying. An estimated half billion people around the world directly depend on reefs for income from fishing and tourism. The Great Barrer Reef alone is thought to be worth $42 billion. 

“If we fail to curb climate change, and global temperatures rise far above 2 °C [above the pre-industrial level], we will lose the benefits they provide to hundreds of millions of people,” said lead study author Terry Hughes, director of the coral-reef centre at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

Bleaching occurs when the ocean’s waters become too warm and expel the photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, which live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Without the algae, the coral dies and seaweeds take over.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Pixabay.

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Pixabay.

Certain species of coral are more vulnerable to bleaching than others, and the new study led by researchers at Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found more deaths of tabular and staghorn corals attributed to the 2016 marine heatwave. These corals are considered to be integral to the barrier reef’s structure.

In order to perform a more thorough analysis of the damage caused by the 2016 heatwave, researchers studied aerial photographs of the entire 2,300-km-long reef taken between March and November 2016. These were combined with underwater surveys of over 100 locations. The authors found more evidence of coral bleaching, which killed corals in two to three weeks from the first signs. The northern section of the reef, which is 700km long, was the worst off — nearly 50% of the coral cover in the reef’s shallowest areas was lost within eight months.

Not all corals were affected equally by the warming, with some being able to tolerate the stressful conditions better than other species. This led to a shift in the ecosystem’s landscape where, for instance, fast-growing species like tabular coral were replaced by simpler, slower growing varieties. The scientists warn, however, that as such warming events become increasingly more common and more intense, it will become very challenging for the coral to adapt — and not just around Australian water, but globally.

Last year, Australian scientists bred baby corals in an artificial environment and later moved them to some of the most damaged parts of the reef. Eight months later, the juvenile coral had survived and grown, lending hope that coral transplants can restore similarly damaged ecosystems, not just in the Great Barrier Reef, but around the world as well. However, this is just patchwork, at the end of the day.

Reefs can recover from bleaching in about 15 to 25 years — but that can only happen if the temperature and acidity of the waters drop. This entails mitigating climate change by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. This is — the authors stress — the only way we can preserve the rich heritage of the Great Barrier Reef for future generations.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists successfully transplant coral into the devastated Great Barrier Reef

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In a bid to save the endangered Great Barrier Reef from the effects of man-made pollution and climate change, Australian scientists have turned to desperate measures. They’ve first bred baby corals in an artificial environment and later moved them to some of the most damaged parts of the reef. Eight months later, the juvenile coral had survived and grown, lending hope that such measures can restore similarly damaged ecosystems, not just in the Great Barrier Reef, but around the world as well.

“The success of this new research not only applies to the Great Barrier Reef but has potential global significance,” lead researcher Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University said in a statement.

“It shows we can start to restore and repair damaged coral populations where the natural supply of coral larvae has been compromised.”

Scientists led by Harrison traveled to the reef’s Heron Island off Australia’s east coast where they collected egg and sperm late last year. About a million larvae were grown, with more than 100 surviving and growing successfully on a settlement tile on the reef, aided by underwater mesh tanks.

The new technique could be the answer to some of the problems that plague the Great Barrier Reef, which has declined by more than half in the last 30 years. The main reason is climate change; warming waters and its increasing acidity from CO2 inputs are pushing the reefs past the point of no return. One recent study found that about a third of the central and northern regions of the Great Barrier Reef has died due to a huge bleaching event. Corals to the north of Cairns, which account for two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, are also massively affected with 35 to 50 percent dead or dying. Bleaching occurs when the ocean’s waters become too warm: heat stress makes the corals expel their photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, with which they live in a symbiotic relationship. Without the algae, the coral dies and seaweeds take over.

Previously, conservationists have used other methods to restore the Great Barrier Reef such as “coral gardening”, which involves breaking up healthy coral and sticking healthy branches on the reef. Harrison is more optimistic about his approach which was earlier demonstrated around the Philippines, in areas degraded by blast fishing.

“The results are very promising and our work shows that adding higher densities of coral larvae leads to higher numbers of successful coral recruits,” he added.

The news is like a breath of fresh air. The Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest living structure on Earth, is reeling from the second year straight of coral bleaching due to climate change. The success of these first trials are very encouraging, but the accelerated rate of coral decline in the reef is staggering. The challenge will be figuring out how to broaden the scale of coral breeding and transplant technology to really make a difference.

At the end of the day, coral transplants can only patch reefs. It’s like a pill that treats symptoms instead of the underlying illness, which actually causes the symptoms. Like any coral, the transplant variety will also be subjected to bleaching. If we’re to save the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems in a similar situation, the only viable solution is to urgently cut back on fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Biologists discover a large blue hole in the Great Barrier Reef thanks to Google Maps

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the planet’s most biodiverse and intriguing areas in the world, but it’s also relatively inaccessible. It shouldn’t surprise us then that we’re still discovering more and more about it.

The blue hole. Image credits: Johnny Gaskell/Instagram.

Johnny Gaskell, an Australian who loves marine wildlife and underwater photography, was looking around Google Maps when he discovered something unexpected: a big blue hole. Gaskell, who also works as a researcher for Sharks and Rays Australia, took a boat to the site and explored the hole. Although it is much further out than he usually goes, the trip was well worth it.

“What we found inside was hard to believe, considering five months ago a Category 4 cyclone went straight over the top of it,” Gaskell told Mashable. “At around 15 to 20 metres (16 to 21 yards) deep, there were huge Birdsnest Corals (Seriatopora) and super elongated Staghorn Corals (Acropora), both of which were among the biggest and most delicate colonies I’ve ever seen,” Gaskell said.

This hole, while nowhere near as large as other giants, still measures a respectable 50 to 65 feet deep (15-20 meters), and as Gaskell notes, it hosts some large and healthy coral colonies — something unexpected in the Great Barrier Reef, which is slowly being killed off, in large part due to anthropic pressure.

Research is underway at the blue hole.

“Yesterday’s Blue Hole mission in the Great Barrier Reef,” Gaskell wrote on his Instagram. “This Blue Hole has previously been described and documented by geologists who suggested it could be even older than the famous Great Blue Hole, in Belize. Its location is in one of the least explored parts Great Barrier Reef, over 200km from Daydream Island. To get there we had to travel overnight for 10 hours and time the tides perfectly… Was well worth it!”

Gaskell has located two other blue holes, roughly 200 kilometers away from the first one. Logistical preparations are currently being made to explore the other ones. However, their location is still kept secret for conservation fears. Corals are greatly suffering from bleaching caused by rising temperatures, and tourism can add even more stress with potentially devastating consequences. Half of the reef has vanished in the past 27 years, and it shows no sign of slowing down — this is what makes the healthy corals in the hole even more surprising.

Blue holes are basically marine sinkholes — natural depressions (or holes) in the surface of the Earth’s surface, (usually) caused by karst processes. Karst processes occur when the bedrocks are soluble – in other words, in 99% of all cases, in carbonate rocks (like limestone or dolomite) or evaporitic rocks (like gypsum or anhydrite). Marine sinkholes are also called blue holes. Blue holes typically contain tidally-influenced water of fresh, marine, or mixed chemistry, and can differ greatly from the surrounding environment.

Marine biologist finds gaping blue hole in Great Barrier Reef using Google Maps

A sapphire-blue waterhole was discovered by an Australian marine biologist in the Great Barrier Reef while he was casually browsing Google Maps. The blue hole, nested within one of the Great Barrier Reef’s biggest lagoons, is filled with very deep, strikingly large coral species.

That little dot is a boat. The amazing lagoon filled with coral was initially found over Google Maps. Credit: Instagram

That little dot is a boat. The amazing lagoon filled with coral was initially found over Google Maps. Credit: Instagram

Johnny Gaskell, a biologist from Queensland, was simply amazed when he went down in person to inspect the strange deep lagoon he had initially found over the internet.

“After spotting this deep blue hole on google maps we decided to head far offshore, out further than our normal Reef trips to see what dwelled within,” Gaskell wrote on Instagram.

Credit: Johnny Gaskell, Instagram.

Credit: Johnny Gaskell, Instagram.

“What we found inside was hard to believe considering five months ago a Cat 4 cyclone went straight over the top of it. ”

“At around 15m-20m deep there was [sic] huge Birdsnest Corals (Seriatopora) and super elongate Staghorn Corals (Acropora) both of which were among the biggest and most delicate colonies I’ve ever seen.”

A blue hole is a marine cavern or sinkhole that is open to the water’s surface. These usually extend below sea level where they can harbor underwater caves.

The lagoon’s walls were what eventually protected the coral from the cyclone, as they probably had for decades. The blue hole, which Gaskell named using his own moniker for inspiration, measures about 150 meters across and at least 20 meters deep, though the biologist adds that it still needs exploring. For comparison, the largest known blue hole, called The Great Blue Hole is located off the coast of Belize and is 124 meters deep.

Gaskell and friend dived into the blue hole to investigate what's inside. A faboulous world awaited. Credit: Johnny Gaskell, Instagram.

Gaskell and friend dived into the blue hole to investigate what’s inside. A fabulous world awaited. Credit: Johnny Gaskell, Instagram.

The discovery was made during a bad time for the Great Barrier Reef which is currently going through a sorry state of affairs. Pollution and climate change are causing wildlife and coral populations to decline dramatically, especially at the hands of coral bleaching. About half of the coral in Northern Great Reef has already been killed at the hand of man-made global warming.  Corals to the north of Cairns, which account for two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef, are also massively affected with 35 percent to 50 percent dead or dying. If we don’t cut greenhouse emissions dramatically, and fast, these reefs “will cease to host functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of the century,” the UNESCO World Heritage Center in Paris reports.

Reef Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Coral reefs generate $36 billion in tourism every year but we offer little in return

Aside from supposedly containing the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs are an important source of income for many communities around the world. Attracted by their beauty and scientific value, millions of tourists exchange their cash with local businesses, thus supporting many families. Just how much cash? About $36 billion globally, according to what looks like the best estimate so far. Many coral reefs, however, are threatened. If invaluable species that call the coral home don’t impress and spur you to action, maybe hard cash will. Hopefully.

Reef Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Reef Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Every year, people around coastlines all over the world collectively make some 70 million trips to visit coral reefs for leisure purposes, according to a team led by Mark Spalding, from the Global Ocean Team and The Nature Conservancy. To gauge how much revenue coral reefs generate, Spalding and colleagues started with national level tourism stats then turning to big data and social media data. No fewer than 20 million public photos posted on Flickr were crawled to assess how popular specific locations were but also to correlate spending around reef sites only. Then, metadata and information like the location of various underwater photos or the bookings from 125,000 hotels were all pooled to further assess spending.

Ultimately, they learned that:

  • business centered around coral reefs is worth $36 billion annually and globally;
  • there are over 70 countries designated as “million dollar reefs” or reefs that generate about $1 million per square kilometer. For many small island states, such revenue stream is critical to their survival being among the few income sources;
  • only 30% of world’s coral reefs are exploited for tourism, the rest being far too difficult to reach, the team wrote in their paper published in Marine Report.

“This data is revolutionizing our view of the world,” says Spencer Wood, Senior Scientist at the Natural Capital Project, in a statement. “We began with 20 million photographs uploaded by the public on Flickr. We mined this information to understand where people are going and we were even able to call out 9,000 underwater photographs taken around coral reefs world-wide.”

As big a financial treasure coral reefs can be, as threatened these are by pollution and, ironically, badly managed and unsustainable tourism. About half of the coral in the Northern Great Barrier Reef are getting killed by man-made global warming, specifically bleaching. Bleaching occurs when the ocean’s waters become too warm and expel the photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, which live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral. Without the algae, the coral dies and seaweeds take over. Just yesterday, the BBC reported Australia’s Great Barrier Reef lost nearly a third of its coral last year alone. In 2017, further coral die-offs are expected from the second year of bleaching in a row, and the impacts of tropical cyclone Debbie, the officials said.

“Of course there are concerns, however the process is not inevitable and no-one is talking about the sudden disappearance of reefs,” said Spalding. “Even if reefs lose some of their vigour they remain vibrant, astonishing places that will continue to attract millions of visitors. What we hope is that these same visitors can create the demand for the best possible management that, in turn, can give reefs their greatest chance of continued good health.”

These findings should serve as a wake-up call for the tourism industry which benefits so much from coral reefs and stands to lose so much if it fails to take action.

“If we can convince the industry to take notice, as they clearly should, our hope is they will step up and support better management of coastal ecosystems like coral reefs. It’s a sort of enlightened self-interest,” says Lauretta Burke, report co-author, and Senior Associate at the World Resources Institute.

Bristling with lethal toxin-tinged spikes, a multi-armed creature is threatening the Great Barrier Reef.

How household vinegar could help save the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 2,000km (1,200 miles) along the coast, is the world’s largest living ecosystem. Yet it’s being threatened and every year the coral retreats at the hand of pollution, tourism, farming and pests. One such pest is the crown-of-thorns starfish which attaches itself to the coral and destroys it with its venomous thorns. Various pest control measures have been tried, but none proved more effective than injecting the animals with vinegar. James Cook University researchers tried out various concentrations of vinegar, needle size and injection locations until they found the sweet spot for a 100% kill rate within 48 hours of contact. Widespread and sustained (you have to control the starfish every year following breeding season) could thus help save the Great Barrier Reef, or at least buy time until we address the more serious causes leading to its destruction.

Bristling with lethal toxin-tinged spikes, a multi-armed creature is threatening the Great Barrier Reef.

Bristling with lethal toxin-tinged spikes, a multi-armed creature is threatening the Great Barrier Reef.

Widespread throughout the Coral Triangle, Crown-of-Thorns Sea stars (COTS) aren’t actually star shaped. Rather, they resemble flattened sea-urchins, with 12 to 20 arms radiating from a central disc, densely coated by needle-tipped spikes. Mammoth appetites allow adults to chomp through six square meters of coral reef annually. An outbreak can be devastating – live coral cover in Palawan’s Green Isle Bay plummeted from 70% to 10% in just a few months. Full recovery takes years and can be hindered by the inevitable growth of algae. When this happens, only browsers such as surgeonfish or rabbit fish can graze off enough space for new corals to develop.

“COTS are the perfect coral predators because of their highly-developed breeding and defence capabilities,” explains WWF-Philippines CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan. “They are believed to have the highest fertilization rates of all known invertebrates. A tire-sized adult can spew up to 60 million eggs per batch, so if just 1% survives, 600,000 will – as Spock says – live long and prosper.”

Previously, researchers have tried injecting ox bile in the crown-of-thorns starfish population one-by-one. This had good results, but the ox-bile is hard to come by and expensive. Through pure trial and error, the researchers led by Lisa Boström-Einarssom tried out various substances before finally finding vinegar, an inexpensive common household item, to be the best fit. Injecting 20 ml of vinegar has as a 100 percent strike rate for any type of starfish in the trial. Some 350,000 starfish were culled by divers last year in their trial.

“It is a different process (to using ox bile),” Boström-Einarssonfrom explains to Gizmag. “There is acid in the vinegar and because the starfish is made mostly of water, it cannot regulate the pH and its tissue just melts away.”

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is desperate need of help. Its size is just half what it was only 30 years ago. Considering the situation, Boström-Einarssonfrom and team have come up with a great solution, although very difficult to implement. Divers have to inject the starfish one at a time, which can prove difficult since there are  12 million crown-of-thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef. Each female lays 65 million eggs during the breeding season. What you have to do in this situation is have a really large squad of divers each year ready to cull the starfish, which might prove to be very expensive (what isn’t?). Another alternative is to design a aquatic robot that can do the job faster, more effectively and cheaper.

Of course, you can also address the root. The crown-of-thorns starfish is one of the leading causes of coral loss in the Great Barrier Reef over the past 27 years, and at the same time their numbers have gone up because they have more to eat. Their favorite food is phytoplankton (algal blooms) which has significantly become more widespread around corals because of excess nitrogen. This nitrogen comes from runoff pollution from fertilizers used by the banana industry in the Wet Tropics, and the sugarcane industry. University of Queensland researchers found  13% of sugarcane land is managed with best practice for nutrients and only 30% of the nitrogen in fertilizer ends up in the harvested crop. What happens is the nitrogen winds up in the soil, instead of getting absorbed by the plant itself, where it washes into rivers and ultimately the ocean. Specifically, sugar cane farmers seem to use much more nitrogen (urea or ammonia) fertilizers than they have to, at the expense of the Great Barrier Reef.

Despite a major setback this year when UNESCO declined to grant protected status for the reef, this are shaping up for the better. According to  Susanne Schmidt writing for Science 2.0, “phosphorus in reef waters fell by 14.5%, suggesting that the targeted 20% reduction in phosphorus loads by 2018 is achievable. Pesticide and sediment loads fell by about half, tracking towards the 60% reduction target for pesticides, and a more modest goal of 20% reduction of sediment load by 2018.”

The star(fish) destroying robot is yellow and deadly

Picture this:

A city under siege. Many of the outlying buildings are old, dry, lifeless shells of their former beauty as nearly 50 percent of the population is wiped out, consumed by ravenous invaders. And the only hope of lifting the siege lies with a poison injecting, yellow robot.

Awesome, we should make it into a movie

But we’re already doing much, much better; we’re making it a reality. The “city” is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, plagued by an overpopulation of Acanthaster planci, or Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (COTS), a species that over the last 30 years has chummed down on nearly half of the Reef’s population of corral. But help is on the way, as scientists and engineers teamed together to create the ultimate in yellow starfish de-population technology, the COTSbot.

*The audience gasps at the sleekness, the yellowness of this fearsome guardian*
Image via bbc

The COTSbot, an autonomous underwater vehicle developed by Matthew Dunbabin and Feras Dayoub of the Queensland University of Technology, completed its first sea trials this week in Queensland’s Moreton Bay and is set to begin its grim work this December.

The bot lies on stereoscopic cameras for depth perception, pitch-and-roll sensors to keep it stable, and GPS systems to make sure it does not stray from it’s path of destruction. It also has a state-of-the-art computer vision system working in tandem with the cameras to identify targets.

The software was “trained” with thousands of still images of the reef and videos to help the robot recognize the starfish. If the robot is unsure whether an object is a COT starfish, it will snap an image of it and ask a human to confirm. A yes or no answer gets wrapped into the robot’s machine-learning algorithm so that it learns and advances its technique for ultimately finding the starfish without any human intervention.

But at the center of its instruments, and arguably the most fearful should one find himself in a particularly starfishy state, is a pneumatic injection arm designed to deliver a lethal dose of bile salts into the Crowns-of-Thorns. It can deliver more than 200 lethal shots in the eight hours it can stay submerged before its batteries give out.

“We see the COTSbot as a first responder for ongoing eradication programs — deployed to eliminate the bulk of COTS in any area, with divers following a few days later to hit the remaining COTS,” Dunbabin said in a press statement.

A little insight into the villains

The Crown of Thorns starfish.
Image via scienceinpublic

COTS are not usually an invasive species, and they’re not even native to the Reef. Scientists have a couple of theories for why the starfish population has exploded, but it seems to be a combination of fewer predators — thanks to fishing and shell collecting — as well as wastewater runoff, which increases plankton blooms that serve as food for crown-of-thorns starfish larvae.

Between now and December, the QUT roboticists will train COTSbot on living starfish at the Great Barrier Reef. It won’t inject the brine until a human allows it, but after training, COTSbot will be on its own.

The Great Barrier Reef left out of UNESCO “in danger” list, environmental group films turtle-back video to raise awareness of the area’s fragility

The Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 2,000km (1,200 miles) along the coast, is the world’s largest living ecosystem. Environmental groups are pushing to get the reef listed as “in danger” by the UNESCO, so that the Australian government would have to work harder to protect it from various dangers such as pollution, dredging, fishing and so on. The UN says this is the “most biodiverse” of its World Heritage sites, and that is of “enormous scientific and intrinsic importance”.

Image via: lt.umn.edu

Earlier today however, UNESCO decided against giving the reef protected status, while they do recognize that it faces “major threats”. The decision has been welcomed by the state of Queensland, which generates billions of dollars in tourism revenue from the reef.  Jackie Trad, Queensland’s deputy state premier, told BBC she was “absolutely pleased about the decision”.

“It was an incredible moment in history, in Queensland and Australian history,” said Ms Trad..

A report published in 2014 concluded that the condition of the reef “is expected to further deteriorate in the future”. Climate change, extreme weather, and pollution from industry were listed a key concerns. Ms Trad agreed that there has been a decline in the reef’s health, and said that the Queensland government has made “strong commitments” to protecting it.

Australia said it had “clearly heard” the concerns of the environmental groups and would commit an additional A$8 million ($6.2m; £3.9m) for monitoring the reef. Earlier this year, their governing body submitted a plan to UNESCO outlining how it would address the threats to the reef. This included a proposed objective of reducing pollution by 80% before 2025, as well as reversing a decision to allow dredged material to be dumped near the reef.

One of the conditions imposed on Australia so that the designation does not get put into place is that they have to give updates to UNESCO at the end of 2016 and in 2020 about the implementation of the organization’s recommendations regarding the reef. However, some environmental groups remain skeptical:

“Until the plans for the massive coal mine and port expansion are dropped, it’s impossible to take Australia’s claims that they are protecting the reef seriously,” Greenpeace’s Jess Panegyres told the BBC.

Dermot O’Gorman, of the WWF conservation group, said that the committee’s decision “places Australia on probation”.

And as such, they made this video, to raise awareness of the site’s fragile beauty, and to show us what we stand to loose if measures to protect the area are not taken.

This video shows a journey through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef seen from a turtle’s eye view. Environmental groups are campaigning the Australian government and UNESCO to designate the reef as “in danger,” claiming industrial activity in the area threatens the reef’s ecosystem. (Christine Hof and Ian Bell, WWF)

The video from the World Wildlife Fund was filmed using a GoPro Camera attached to the shell of a turtle lazily swimming around the reef.

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef collapses at hand of Australian farmers

The Great Barrier Reef is the  the biggest single structure made by living organisms; so vast that it can be seen from space. It hasn’t been fairing too well, however, and in the past 30 years alone its surface covered by coral has been reduced to half, as reported previously by ZME. A recent study proves that neither climate change or storms are to blame for the devastating loss, but human activity – primarily farming and extensive degradation on mainland Australia.

Great Barrier ReefThe coral began showing signs of collapse in the 1920s, coincidentally or not, right at the same time farming became incorporated as a source of food for settlers in region. This expansion went well into the 1950s, until it stabilized. Still, large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and waste ran into rivers and streams and then into the ocean. In term, this lead to a contamination of the pristine waters off the coast of Queensland and killed the natural branching coral species, called Acropora, leaving a stunted, weedy type of coral in its place.

To prove their claims, researchers from University of Queensland drilled sediment cores, 6.5 to 16.5 feet long, from the seafloor at Pelorus Island, which is in the thick of the coral reef ecosystem. By dating the various samples they drilled, the scientists were able to reconstruct the Great Barrier Reef‘s history. Somewhere between 1920 and 1955, the Acropora stopped growing altogether and a slow-growing, spindly coral called Pavona took its place.

“Corals have always died from natural events such as floods and cyclones, but historically have shown rapid recovery following disturbance. Our results suggest that the chronic influence of European settlement on the Queensland coastline may have reduced the corals ability to bounce back from these natural disturbances”  said o-lead author, George Roff, in a press release.

Their findings are very similar to observations taken in the Caribbean, where human activities have also disrupted coral reef habitat. Now, the present study’s takeaway that human’s have been causing the Great Barrier Reef collapse might not be big news to most of you, but not only do the findings suggest humans have been damaging reefs far longer than previously thought, it also provides proof that the local authorities can not ignore. The authors propose a simple, in theory, and straightforward solution:reduce polluted runoff into the ocean.

Findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Great barrier reaf

More than half of the Great Barrier Reef has declined in the past 30 years

Great barrier reaf

(c) David Doubilet

According to the most comprehensive study ever carried out on the World Heritage Site, findings have shown that damage caused by  storms, crown-of-thorns starfish and bleaching have resulted in more than half of the amount of coral covering reefs being cut in half since 1985 and will likely continue to decline if immediate countering steps are not made.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, making it the biggest single structure made by living organisms. It’s so vast that it can actually be seen from space. Still, this natural wonder of the world has been hit hard in the past few decades, as much of its coral has died off, diminishing the habitat of a fragile, yet unique ecosystem. The future doesn’t fair too well, either.

“In 2007, we first sounded the alarm that the Great Barrier Reef, and Pacific reefs in general, were not as pristine and resilient as a lot of people wanted to believe,”  said John Bruno, a marine biology professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who was not part of the study. “But still, this is really shocking to me.”

After reviewing 2,258 surveys of 214 reefs within the marine sanctuary, the researchers from Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Wollongong found a  major decline in coral cover from 28 percent to 13.8 percent. “Two-thirds of that decline has occurred since 1998,” they added.

The main drivers of this severe coral genocide have been found to be tropical storms (48%), coral predation by crown-of-thorns starfish (42%) and coral bleaching (10%). Now, storms and star fish have always been part of the reef’s system, and rdinarily, reefs can recover within 10 to 20 years from storms, bleachings or starfish attacks but climate change impacts slow this down. Rising ocean acidification caused by seas absorbing more carbon dioxide is disrupting the ability of corals to build their calcium carbonate structures. Hotter seas stress corals still further. Also, as stress gathers up from warm seas or pollution bleaching, whereby coral expels the tiny single-celled algae inside that provide color, and storms intensify.

Coral reef could be halved once more in 10 years

If crucial steps aren’t met, the scientists fear the covering coral might again be halved in a mere 10 years.

“Coral cover on the reef is consistently declining, and without intervention, it will likely fall to 5 to 10 percent within the next 10 years,” say the researchers in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

The researchers aren’t willing to make phantasmagorical  claims of reducing global warming and such, instead they suggest a more realistic goal that will help the  Great Barrier Reef at least maintain it’s current coverage, if not grow – countering starfish pests.

Starfish predation plays a big role in coral decline, and it’s primarily caused by contaminated water. Nutrient-rich waters stimulate plankton, which starfish larvae thrive on, and if fertilizer and other nutrient-rich pollution in the water is cleaned up, starfish populations would decline. Coral cover could increase by nearly a percentage point a year, estimates show. The researchers back-up their claims with an analysis of the northern Great Barrier Reef, which has little starfish predation, and showed no overall decline.