Saving Coral Reefs
- 1 Overview
- 2 Root Causes
- 3 Barriers to Progress
- 4 Existing Efforts to Address the Problem
- 5 Ecosystem
Over half of all coral reefs have been lost, and by mid-century 90% or more will be gone due to coral bleaching from climate change, water pollution, and destructive fishing techniques. The Saving Corals prize, sponsored by the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative, is seeking urgently needed innovations that can scale to protect and restore coral reefs.
Select Grand Challenge Focus Areas
An amazing XPRIZE design will focus on the smallest set of breakthrough innovations that can unlock the largest possible impact.
After consulting both internal and external experts in the field, XPRIZE has prioritized three “Grand Challenge Focus Areas” to be solved in this space: Coral Restoration, Local Coral Protection, and Climate Resilience. “Grand Challenge Focus Areas” are topics in which a breakthrough could lead to massive transformational change in creating a world of thriving coral reefs. XPRIZE is seeking amazing prize designs in these areas:
One key Grand Challenge is the creation of innovations that can scale globally to actually restore or regenerate coral reefs, with possible topics including but not limited to: Mechanized Planting, Jumpstarting with 3-D Printed Coral Structures, Endangered Coral Species Recovery, Regenerating Degraded Corals, Settlement Structures, Coral Nursery Design, or Coral Fertilization/Reproduction.
Local Coral Protection
Another Grand Challenge crucial for saving coral reefs is innovations to stop local human threats to corals. Topics here could include technologies to: Enforce Laws on Dynamite Fishing or Marine Protected Areas, Improve Water Quality, Combat Algal Growth, Eliminate Invasive Species, Prevent Sedimentation or Anchor Damage.
The third Grand Challenge in the domain of saving corals is around innovations that can make corals resilient to current and future changes in rising water temperatures, changes in ocean chemistry from ocean acidification, and sea level rise. Prize Designs focused on climate resilience are also hugely important given the prevalence of global climate change to coral conservation. Areas that a Prize Design here could target include: Temperature Control through Upwelling and Shading, Breeding and Genetics for Climate Resilience, Reef Mobility, Coral Disease Resistance, or Assisted Evolution Field Trials.
What are the underlying reasons that corals are dying at an unprecedented rate? What are the natural, technological, social, environmental, political, and economic reasons why in coral reefs are dying faster than at any time in recorded history?
There are a few reasons as to why corals are dying. Some reasons include:
- Plastic dumping in the ocean, which blocks sunlight and forms shrapnel
- Overfishing, which leads to extraordinary growths of algae, which end up killing coral larvae
- Rising global temperatures cause the water to be warmer, which affects coral growth
- Bleaching agents
The corals are bleaching. Most corals (but not all) have a symbiotic partnership with a type of algae (chromalveolatacalled zooxanthellae), which lives in the tissues of the coral. The coral protects the algae with its stinging cells and by generally being poisonous as hell, and the algae shares food that it photosynthesizes with the coral. Corals are animals, though, so they can also just eat stuff, mostly filter feeding (some corals do not have zooxanthellae algae, they just filter feed).
When stressed, like for instance when the water gets too warm, the corals flush all their zooxanthellae out of their tissue. Scientists are not entirely sure why they do this. The zooxanthellae creates the amazing colors found in corals. The zooxanthellae can also be killed by toxic substances in the water that don't kill the coral, leaving them without their algae. Just to give you an idea, here's what a typical anemone might look like, and here's a bleached anemone with no zooxanthellae. The latter anemone is still alive, but it may not be for long.
When a coral bleaches, it's possible that it can absorb algae from the environment and start over. However, that's not usually very likely. Usually, once a coral bleaches, it slowly dies. And once the living tissue is gone, pest algae species will grow on top of the skeleton and prevent new coral tissue from recolonizing it. About 20% of the Great Barrier Reef is bleached out, meaning the corals are either already dead, or dying. The algae is gone. And since it's huge swaths of the reef all bleached out, it's very hard for the corals to pick up zooxanthellae, because none of their neighbors have any, either.
There are a few reasons for the Great Barrier Reef bleaching. A great deal of it has to do with global climate change. While a two degree average increase may not sound like much, you have to think about what kind of wild temperature changes it takes to swing the average of the entire planet. Corals are very sensitive to temperature - because of how well water both reflects heat and holds onto heat, the reefs don't change temperature much. But the increased average temperatures around the globe have created intense high spikes of temperature, raising the water temperature higher than what the corals can deal with.
Another significant problem is crown of thorns starfish. These starfish eat the polyps and tissue of corals, creating scars on the skeletons where tissue is missing. That leads to the pest algae growth, competing with the coral tissue for access to the skeleton. Also, believe it or not, corals can get infections. The damaged tissue can let infections or parasites into the tissue. Corals also occasionally do something called Rapid Tissue Necrosis, or RTN, but it usually shows up when the tissue has been damaged in one place. Basically, one part of the coral starts dying, and then within a day or so the entire coral is dead. Normally, crown of thorns starfish aren't bad for reefs, because they can slow down the fastest growing corals so the slower ones have a chance to catch up. Like any predator, they protect the prey species by creating room for more of them to grow. But for some reason - probably somewhat related to global warming, scientists think, maybe? - the crown of thorns starfish are reproducing and marauding around the Indo-Pacific reefs as massive colonies that devastate whatever reef they wander into, like underwater locusts. It's not clear what's going on, though, especially since this seems to be a cyclical occurrence, happening about every 17 years. So...it might be completely natural and just has very unfortunate timing to happen now while the reefs are already in really poor shape? Or climate change may be causing an abnormal increase in their numbers? Some combination of the two?
In any case, as the reefs die, the life around it dies, too. There are a number of creatures that rely on corals for food or safety. Angelfish and parrotfish both eat corals, and some angelfish are obligate corallivores - their diet must include corals. Clownfish, obviously, rely on anemones for safety. A lot of fish hide among the corals, using the stinging and poison of the corals to ward off bigger predators that can't get between the corals. As the corals disappear, those fish disappear, too. Then the bigger predators of those fish, like sharks and eels and whatnot start disappearing, too. With no shelter, tangs like blue regal tangs get picked off by the hungry predators. Tangs are a vital part of the health of the reef, since they graze on algae that would otherwise grow on the reef, competing with corals for real estate under the sun. The corals can't grow fast enough to keep up with the algae, so the algae chokes it out. That kills more coral, which means less food for the corallivores and less shelter, which means fewer of those fish, and fewer and hungrier predators, which means fewer tangs, which means more algae.
A YouTube video which explains this concept in a very nice way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kb0bz-3lWc.
Here is another video that goes into a bit more detail on what is going on with Great barrier reef in this case : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BO44JlAElXM
Al Jazeera story from January 2018 here. Why are coral reefs important, and why are they dying? (More than 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than five centimetres wide are littering coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region)
2016 National Geographic story here. Corals Are Dying on the Great Barrier Reef (Australian government issues emergency response level and warns that bleaching may be linked to climate change.)
March 2018 story in the Economist Why is so much of the world's coral dying?
An interesting story on the Skeptical Science website, Coral, Life's a Beach... and Then You Die This going back 7 years demonstrates that we know what is happening, and there should be quite a lot of guidance on how we can improve.
Barriers to Progress
A barrier to progress is a systemic reason why a problem can’t be solved under the current paradigm. This is about something larger than any one particular technology or approach succeeding or failing. What are the larger systems or forces that will prevent any approach from succeeding or which are dis-incentivizing solutions from even being created? What would need to change in order for progress to occur in this topic area?
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has this to say: Why are coral reefs in peril and what is being done to protect them?
Existing Efforts to Address the Problem
The goal to get a sense of what other efforts are already underway to address the problem of saving coral reefs. Please be sure to focus on the who, what, when, and why. Who is developing solutions to a similar problem (which innovators, academics, corporations)? What solutions are they developing? When were these solutions tried or when might they be ready by? Why did the people pursuing them take this particular tack? The hope is that by understanding existing efforts, we can see where there are gaps, or holes, in current efforts that might be targeted with a prize.
Coral reefs are widely regarded as one of the most beautiful, diverse and delicate ecosystems on the planet. A new study by an international team of scientists reveals that reefs also play the tough guy role in protecting hundreds of millions of people from rising sea levels and damaging wave action.
The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 27 previous studies of how coral reefs around the world dissipate wave energy, conducted in conditions ranging from normal surf to hurricane-level waves. They found that coral reefs reduce wave energy by an average of 97 percent, dissipating disproportionately more wave energy as wave energy increased. The coral reef structure buffers shorelines against waves, storms, and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. When reefs are damaged or destroyed, the absence of this natural barrier can increase the damage to coastal communities from normal wave action and violent storms. Human activities that directly damage coral, in combination with increasing ocean temperatures and acidification, have already degraded or are posing serious threats to at least two-thirds of the world's coral reefs. The new analysis, published in Nature Communications, raises the stakes for conservation efforts, the researchers said, and could help focus those efforts toward reefs in high-risk areas. Reef restoration can also provide additional benefits. While reducing risk, coral reefs also support biodiversity, improve water quality, and support fisheries and tourism.
Coral reefs are themselves alive, and they also provide habitats for a huge variety of Marine life. Millions of species have made their homes in coral reefs. Smaller, more delicate species in particular benefit from coral reefs as a sheltered habitat, and could not survive in the open ocean. The anemone fish a.k.a clown fish is a good example, one to keep in mind next time you watch Finding Nemo. On the other hand they serve as a wave breaker. The surf is not going to be as strong and the waves are not going to be as high at shorelines that have coral reefs. Which can be very important for people (or wildlife) living close to the shore. Most corals and sponges are filter feeders, which means that they consume particulate matter suspended in the water column. This contributes to enhanced quality and clarity of our near shore waters. Coral reefs often form the backbone of local economies. Tourists coming to dive need not only dive boats and guides, but also restaurants, hotels and commercial and entertainment facilities. In many cases, tourism asociated with reefs has expanded to transform the entire economy of a region.
What will happen if coral reef's die?
There's potential for there to be an effect on the earth's radiative budget. The extent of this is still pretty unclear though. The idea stems from the CLAW hypothesis. It essentially is an idea that biological sources (in particular, phytoplankton, but coral is also considered) are part of a feedback loop with the oceans, atmosphere and sun.
For example, under stress or increased sunlight/heat, the coral will release more of a substance known as dimethyl sulfide. Dimethyl sulfide undergoes processes in which it can become a cloud seed. The more cloud seeds you have, the whiter the clouds that are formed are. The whiter the clouds (higher albedo), the more sunlight reflected back into space. The more sunlight reflected into space, the cooler the earth (thus "destressing" the coral).
There are very large uncertainties in the effect a dying coral reef would have though, mainly due to the fact that all of the interactions that occur are quite complex and variable. The CLAW hypothesis and a lot of the research is focused on phytoplankton too, so whether the actual impact of a changing coral reef on the atmosphere is significant or not is still in doubt. On top of this, there is a second process in which cloud seeds are influenced by coral through sea spray formation. This process is said to have an opposite effect to the CLAW hypothesis. The extent of the influence of the sea spray aerosols is still relatively unknown again.
Anyway, what I'm getting at is that IF the coral reefs were to die, there is a chance that something that might be important in regulating the earth's climate will be gone. Which means that the temperature of the earth may increase, eventually.
Although there are many, many threats to coral, ultimately, ocean acidification will cause the near complete loss of scleractinian corals, which are the reef-building corals most people picture (there are also soft corals [gorgonians] and deep water corals that could potentially survive, but that don't build ecosystems the way scleractinians do). These corals require a specific pH range to lay down their calcium carbonate skeleton. Unless major changes happen now, CO2 levels will push acidity past the level that the biochemical process that corals use to create calcium carbonate can handle.
There are already top-level marine scientists that are beginning to study/model what life will be like after coral dies. Their interest is in manufacturing a new ecosystem that provides economic/food benefits on what were previously coral reefs. It is very sad to hear that people in the field are starting to accept this as reality instead of trying to find ways to fight coral extinction, but unless we can teach coral a new way to make calcium carbonate.
Local Coral Protection
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Other Prizes in the Area
What prizes have already been launched in this space? Please clearly state who is who is sponsoring the prize, what it’s goals and timeline are, and the size of the prize purse.
The REEF-RESCUE RIVALRY has just completed the competition, and results are still to come. It is told about in this NatGeo story, Your Bright Idea Could Save the Biggest Reef on Earth https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/australia-great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-conservation-competition-spd/
Foundations and Organizations Already Active in the Area
What are the major players that are already active in these spaces?
The United Nations Environment Programme website has this to say: Coral reef conservation and restoration In the story it referenced this study, which says restoring the natural coral reefs is more cost effective that building artificial structures. The effectiveness of coral reefs for coastal hazard risk reduction and adaptation
What are the groups or individuals that are already funding, or might be willing to fund efforts in this space?
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