What Next for Deep Water Corals?

So deep water coral reefs are a thing, and they’re being threatened by human action, but what comes next? We are far from knowing everything about these hidden forests of biodiversity and even farther from adequately protecting them from the damage we’re inflicting on them. In the coming decades it is of utmost importance to expand our knowledge of deep water reefs and enact new legislation to protect them.

Due to the recent discovery of these reefs and the inherent difficulty in studying ecosystems 4000m (13000ft) under the sea, there is much we don’t know about these communities.  From large scale issues like where in the oceans are these deep water systems and what physical factors affect where they can grow to smaller scale questions like analyzing how they interact with plants and animals in the area and what kind of relationships they have with microbes that are present in the reef, there is a lot of knowledge left to discover on these reefs. And although this may sound like a lot, all of these goals are achievable with existing technologies. Using mapping techniques like multibeam sonar devices to create topographic maps of the ocean floor, we can create low resolution maps in areas that are likely to have reefs and determine we should be looking for these elusive habitats. From there these reefs can be examined and sampled by deep water submersibles that are able to travel to the depths of these reefs. Samplings of coral can help us better understand the amount of diversity present in these reefs and possibly give insight into microbes present.1,2,3

A deep water submersible used to study habitats up to 3000m deep.
© Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

On a more legislative side, more needs to be done to protect these reefs. Currently Australia, Canada, the Canary Islands, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, UK and the United States all have created marine reserves or halted destructive activity like trawling and commercial drilling in areas with deep water reefs, but it’s not quite enough. Although many of known areas are protected areas, many are not or are still in the reviewing process. In addition, we are lacking full scientific data on where reefs are located. Hopefully this can be solved with new mapping techniques being used to find these reefs.1,4

1Svensen, E. Coral reefs: Cold water corals. WWF. http://ift.tt/2nWsYCg
2Watling, L. Auster, P. J. (2017) Seamounts on the High Seas Should be Managed as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems. Frontiers in Marine Science. 4:14
3Ocean Portal. Deep Sea Corals. Smithsonian Museum of Natural History http://ift.tt/1dWJvP0
4Roberts JM (2006) Reefs of the Deep: The Biology and Geology of Cold-Water Coral Ecosystems. Science 312:543–547.

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What Next for Deep Water Corals?

So deep water coral reefs are a thing, and they’re being threatened by human action, but what comes next? We are far from knowing everything about these hidden forests of biodiversity and even farther from adequately protecting them from the damage we’re inflicting on them. In the coming decades it is of utmost importance to expand our knowledge of deep water reefs and enact new legislation to protect them.

Due to the recent discovery of these reefs and the inherent difficulty in studying ecosystems 4000m (13000ft) under the sea, there is much we don’t know about these communities.  From large scale issues like where in the oceans are these deep water systems and what physical factors affect where they can grow to smaller scale questions like analyzing how they interact with plants and animals in the area and what kind of relationships they have with microbes that are present in the reef, there is a lot of knowledge left to discover on these reefs. And although this may sound like a lot, all of these goals are achievable with existing technologies. Using mapping techniques like multibeam sonar devices to create topographic maps of the ocean floor, we can create low resolution maps in areas that are likely to have reefs and determine we should be looking for these elusive habitats. From there these reefs can be examined and sampled by deep water submersibles that are able to travel to the depths of these reefs. Samplings of coral can help us better understand the amount of diversity present in these reefs and possibly give insight into microbes present.1,2,3

A deep water submersible used to study habitats up to 3000m deep.
© Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

On a more legislative side, more needs to be done to protect these reefs. Currently Australia, Canada, the Canary Islands, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, UK and the United States all have created marine reserves or halted destructive activity like trawling and commercial drilling in areas with deep water reefs, but it’s not quite enough. Although many of known areas are protected areas, many are not or are still in the reviewing process. In addition, we are lacking full scientific data on where reefs are located. Hopefully this can be solved with new mapping techniques being used to find these reefs.1,4

1Svensen, E. Coral reefs: Cold water corals. WWF. http://ift.tt/2nWsYCg
2Watling, L. Auster, P. J. (2017) Seamounts on the High Seas Should be Managed as Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems. Frontiers in Marine Science. 4:14
3Ocean Portal. Deep Sea Corals. Smithsonian Museum of Natural History http://ift.tt/1dWJvP0
4Roberts JM (2006) Reefs of the Deep: The Biology and Geology of Cold-Water Coral Ecosystems. Science 312:543–547.

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ENSOs of The Future: The Necessity of Diligence

In the years to come, understanding the effects of El Niño-Southern Oscillation events on coral reefs is instrumental to preserving the beauty and function of these valuable oceanic resources. El Niños, as far as experts can tell, have been occurring for thousands of years, and so they alone are not the concern; the worry is how their growing strength (in connection with global warming) will affect overall climate trends and the natural world. Numerous studies have demonstrated how the 2015-16 El Niño was extraordinarily impactful in this regard, and so these are great tools for putting a finger on just how potent a strong ENSO can be on coral reef ecosystems.

The obvious connection between the increasing global effects of climate change, and bleaching of coral reefs, is the associated elevation of sea surface temperature1. As the Earth’s oceans continue to be heated as a result of human-induced pollution and warming, the severity of temperature increases such as those resulting from El Niño become more and more devastating to reefs. However, this is not the only factor that could potentially affect the survival of coral during future El Niños.

Figure 1: A reef off the coast of Bali, Indonesia Image Credit: Coral Staff, Coral Reef Alliance http://ift.tt/2pIp6pc

A 2016 study published by experts from the European Geosciences Union highlights a different potential cause of coral mortality during the 2015-16 El Niño: sea level fall2. It focused on the reefs of Indonesia (Figure 1), a region known for its high diversity and flourishing tracts, where coral bleaching is common during ENSO cycles; this is a result of the added warmth and dryness during its first phase3. They not only saw that traditional warming-related threats arose, but also that additionally, sea level had lowered considerably in the area (Figure 2)2.

Figure 1: Sea level variance from Overall Mean on coral near Bunaken Island, Indonesia (1993-2016)
Image Credit – Eghbert et al. 2016 (See Ref. 2)

They collected data from years in the past, and noticed that in previous years with strong ENSOs, (such as 1997), sea level had also fallen noticeably. The establishment of an association between these two negative effects on coral reefs allowed them to conclude that sea level fall was likely not seen as a notable detriment of past El Niños2, and that this new factor is a major concern moving forward with the study of reefs during ENSO cycles.

As is made evident in this case study, it’s easy (even for scientists) to overlook the wide range of impacts that ENSOs can have on coral reef health. Sea surface temperature anomaly is the most obvious, and pressing issue involving global warming and the survival of these majestic underwater ecosystems, but others do exist, and should not be ignored. As climate change worsens, El Niños continue to become stronger, and so do their effects on the living world. Some, as we have learned, may still not even be discovered.

Therefore, it is crucial to remain diligent when attempting to quantify and study the adverse challenges presented by global warming. Coral reefs can only be saved through mass cultural understanding, both by experts, and members of the community (like YOU!). If we are to combat the growing strength of ENSOs in the coming decades, it starts with the small things, including comprehending the gravity situation we are confronted with.

References:

1- “El Niño prolongs longest global coral bleaching event.” News and Features – NOAA, pub. online 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Feb 2017. http://ift.tt/2lkdLLM

2- Eghbert, Elvan A., et al. “Coral Mortality Induced by the 2015-2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: The Effect of Rapid Sea Level Fall.” Biogeosciences, vol. 14, no. 4, 2017, pp. 817-826. SciTech Premium Collection. http://ift.tt/2pIvJYK, doi:http://ift.tt/2lyjNIR

3 – Lindsey, Rebecca. “Global impacts of El Niño and La Niña.” Climate.gov – NOAA, pub. online 9 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. http://ift.tt/1Tb8jVF

 

 

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ENSOs of The Future: The Necessity of Diligence

In the years to come, understanding the effects of El Niño-Southern Oscillation events on coral reefs is instrumental to preserving the beauty and function of these valuable oceanic resources. El Niños, as far as experts can tell, have been occurring for thousands of years, and so they alone are not the concern; the worry is how their growing strength (in connection with global warming) will affect overall climate trends and the natural world. Numerous studies have demonstrated how the 2015-16 El Niño was extraordinarily impactful in this regard, and so these are great tools for putting a finger on just how potent a strong ENSO can be on coral reef ecosystems.

The obvious connection between the increasing global effects of climate change, and bleaching of coral reefs, is the associated elevation of sea surface temperature1. As the Earth’s oceans continue to be heated as a result of human-induced pollution and warming, the severity of temperature increases such as those resulting from El Niño become more and more devastating to reefs. However, this is not the only factor that could potentially affect the survival of coral during future El Niños.

Figure 1: A reef off the coast of Bali, Indonesia Image Credit: Coral Staff, Coral Reef Alliance http://ift.tt/2pIp6pc

A 2016 study published by experts from the European Geosciences Union highlights a different potential cause of coral mortality during the 2015-16 El Niño: sea level fall2. It focused on the reefs of Indonesia (Figure 1), a region known for its high diversity and flourishing tracts, where coral bleaching is common during ENSO cycles; this is a result of the added warmth and dryness during its first phase3. They not only saw that traditional warming-related threats arose, but also that additionally, sea level had lowered considerably in the area (Figure 2)2.

Figure 1: Sea level variance from Overall Mean on coral near Bunaken Island, Indonesia (1993-2016)
Image Credit – Eghbert et al. 2016 (See Ref. 2)

They collected data from years in the past, and noticed that in previous years with strong ENSOs, (such as 1997), sea level had also fallen noticeably. The establishment of an association between these two negative effects on coral reefs allowed them to conclude that sea level fall was likely not seen as a notable detriment of past El Niños2, and that this new factor is a major concern moving forward with the study of reefs during ENSO cycles.

As is made evident in this case study, it’s easy (even for scientists) to overlook the wide range of impacts that ENSOs can have on coral reef health. Sea surface temperature anomaly is the most obvious, and pressing issue involving global warming and the survival of these majestic underwater ecosystems, but others do exist, and should not be ignored. As climate change worsens, El Niños continue to become stronger, and so do their effects on the living world. Some, as we have learned, may still not even be discovered.

Therefore, it is crucial to remain diligent when attempting to quantify and study the adverse challenges presented by global warming. Coral reefs can only be saved through mass cultural understanding, both by experts, and members of the community (like YOU!). If we are to combat the growing strength of ENSOs in the coming decades, it starts with the small things, including comprehending the gravity situation we are confronted with.

References:

1- “El Niño prolongs longest global coral bleaching event.” News and Features – NOAA, pub. online 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Feb 2017. http://ift.tt/2lkdLLM

2- Eghbert, Elvan A., et al. “Coral Mortality Induced by the 2015-2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: The Effect of Rapid Sea Level Fall.” Biogeosciences, vol. 14, no. 4, 2017, pp. 817-826. SciTech Premium Collection. http://ift.tt/2pIvJYK, doi:http://ift.tt/2lyjNIR

3 – Lindsey, Rebecca. “Global impacts of El Niño and La Niña.” Climate.gov – NOAA, pub. online 9 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. http://ift.tt/1Tb8jVF

 

 

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Coral Reefs: Guardians of the Coast

 

One aspect we typically don’t think about with regards to how coastal economies survive, is the longevity of the land itself. Beaches and other coastal areas are constantly changing under erosion, and if these places do not receive the proper protection, the land could disappear over time, taking with it many people’s livelihoods.

This is where coral reefs come in. Last time, I discussed ecotourism, an important producer of revenue for many coastal economies surrounded by reefs. Another important economic service coral reefs provide coastal economies with is protection against erosion, although it’s not just economies at stake. Somewhere upwards of 30 million people live on low coral islands and atolls, and the disappearance of these land masses would mean millions of people being uprooted from their homes, giving coastal protection programs even greater significance (Image 1).

Image 1. Low-lying islands and reefs of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Credit: Curt Storlazzi/USGS
(Source: http://ift.tt/2pIZuLU)

It has been found that live corals, along with seagrasses and mangroves, protect coastal areas more than any single habitat or combination of habitats1. Corals specifically, have been shown to limit the impact of waves and storms on coastal areas1, protecting them in the long term. Even more good news, reefs near coastal areas can potentially reduce wave height by up to half a meter in some locations2. This reduction in wave height could significantly reduce erosion on a land mass over time. Although it does not completely put erosion to a stop, it extends the time that the area will be habitable by human populations living there and bringing in revenue from the resources off the coast.

One large factor in whether it is worth maintaining reefs near coasts for the protection they provide is cost. Fortunately, natural defenses for the coast, such as reefs and mangroves, are two to five times cheaper than manmade breakwaters2. This is hugely important because no matter how effective reefs are in protecting coastal areas, and subsequently, their economies, if it is not financially feasible, it will not be done.

Image 2. Artificial reefs being prepared to be stationed near the coast of Riviera Maya in Mexico.
(Source: reefball.com)

In areas particularly prone to large storms and hurricanes, even artificial reefs have been shown to effectively defend coastal areas, although currently, it is not known how to help these reefs last and support life long-term(Image 2). However, because studies have consistently shown that coral reefs provide significant shelter to coastal areas from frequent erosion, I think it is well worth it for coastal economies to invest in the protection of reefs, if not for the reefs’ sakes, but for their own.

 

References
1 Guannel, Greg, et al. “The power of three: coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves protect coastal regions and increase their resilience.” PloS one 11.7 (2016): e0158094.

2 Narayan, Siddharth, et al. “The Effectiveness, Costs and Coastal Protection Benefits of Natural and Nature-Based Defences.” PloS one 11.5 (2016): e0154735.

3 Silva, Rodolfo, et al. “An artificial reef improves coastal protection and provides a base for coral recovery.” Journal of Coastal Research 75.sp1 (2016): 467-471.

4American Geophysical Union. “Climate change reduces coral reefs’ ability to protect coasts.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 July 2015.

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Artificial Reefs and Ways to Take Action

Richard Branson, controversial British business magnate and founder of the Virgin Group, is already known for his massive, unorthodox, and multi-million dollar projects. The billionaire has attempted to commercialize civilian space travel, broken records for hot-air ballooning, and he has just completed his latest project: creating an artificial reef using a historic ship complete with an 80-ft kraken sculpture. The project, which was sunk on April 10th in the British Virgin Islands, is supposed to support swimming education in the BVI, increase awareness for marine conservation, provide scientists with a new study site, and generate revenue for repairs through tourism to the dive site.1

An artificial reef is, “a manmade structure that may mimic some of the characteristics of a natural reef” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,2 and they are often used for fisheries, commercial dive sites, or marine ecosystem conservation. Artificial reefs have been around for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the United States government began researching artificial reefs in earnest.3 Today, artificial reefs are made up of specially made concrete or fiberglass structures, sunken ships, sculptures and artwork, subway cars, and more. But are these having any effect on coral recruitment and growth, or is this just another way for humans to dispose of their junk? A 2016 study analyzed artificial reefs off of the coast of Singapore after a ten-year gap in monitoring. The scientists found that these reefs had successfully recruited stony corals, and they pointed out that these corals had reached sexual maturity and could participate in mass spawning events, which is crucial for reef growth and conservation. The figure below shows the changes in species composition before and after the ten-year gap, with a promising increase in hard coral cover.4

Figure 1. The percentage cover on exterior walls of artificial reefs in Singapore in 2004 and 2014, by lifeform category. This figure shows changes in species distribution over time, with a slight decline in some algae and a notable increase in hard corals. Source: Ng et al in Aquatic Conserv: Mar Freshw Ecosyst

Another paper showed that large artificial reefs can support diverse and abundant coral and fish communities at higher percentage coral cover than nearby natural coral reefs in Dubai. However, artificial reefs had lower coral diversity, which highlights the need to conserve natural coral reefs instead of replacing them entirely with artificial reefs.5 The high coral cover does provide an opportunity, however, to grow coral for transplantation later, or as hubs of reproduction.

There is a lot to consider when attempting to sink giant terrestrial objects as artificial reefs. Contamination of ocean waters and stability on the ocean floor are both huge risks, as these reefs can actually do more harm than good if not properly prepared. Ships have to be cleaned out to remove any substances that can contaminate waters, and certain materials, like rubber tires, can leak chemicals into the water and cause physical harm to existing reefs.6 Now, the United States has a National Artificial Reef Plan, which strictly limits what is thrown to the bottom of our oceans, and how. There is additional concern among the scientific community that artificial reefs will distract efforts away from conserving natural reefs, and warn that they can help in recovery of degraded or destroyed reefs but are second-best when it comes to conserving reefs.7 Additionally, artificial reefs can concentrate sought-after fish away from natural reefs, which makes them targets for fishing boats.6

Artificial reefs are undoubtedly only local solutions with low efficacy on a global scale, but they provide one positive solution when done correctly. Artificial reefs will never be able to fully replace coral reefs, as such a project would be far too expensive, disruptive, and the species diversity may never reach natural levels. However, they provide hope as they can be used as places for fish species to take refuge as corals continue to die off, and once coral species on these artificial reefs reach sexual maturity, they can contribute to the growth of natural reefs as well.

Lastly, I want to provide tips on how to contribute to coral reef conservation as an individual. If you want to get involved in reef conservation, look for local groups promoting beach cleanups or educational events near you, stay informed on upcoming legislation and what your candidates for local government stand for. Keep an eye out for algae and beach cleanups in your area, and try to eat sustainably sourced fish. And of course, reducing your CO2 consumption and overall living an environmentally friendly life will benefit the ocean as well as various other ecosystems. 8 We can’t all spend millions of dollars to sink giant ships or designate large swaths of ocean as Marine Protected Areas, but we can still try to make a positive human impact on our oceans.

Works Cited

  1. Ekstein, Nikki. “Richard Branson’s Latest Travel Project Is Underwater.” Bloomberg, April 7, 2017. http://ift.tt/2nl47eI.
  2. National Ocean Service. “What Is an Artificial Reef?” Ocean Facts, January 23, 2014.
  3. “A Brief History of Marine Artificial Reef Development in U.S. Waters.” Powerpoint presented at the NOAA/ASMFC Artificial Reef Workshop, Alexandria, VA, June 9, 2016.
  4. Ng, Chin Soon Lionel, Tai Chong Toh, and Loke Ming Chou. “Artificial Reefs as a Reef Restoration Strategy in Sediment-Affected Environments: Insights from Long-Term Monitoring.” Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, January 1, 2017, n/a-n/a. doi:10.1002/aqc.2755.
  5. Burt, J., A. Bartholomew, P. Usseglio, A. Bauman, and P. F. Sale. “Are Artificial Reefs Surrogates of Natural Habitats for Corals and Fish in Dubai, United Arab Emirates?” Coral Reefs 28, no. 3 (2009): 663–75. doi:10.1007/s00338-009-0500-1.
  6. Harrigan, Stephen. “Relics to Reefs: Why Fish Can’t Resist Sunken Ships, Tanks, and Subway Cars.” National Geographic, February 2011. http://ift.tt/1At1PI6.
  7. Sheppard, Charles R. C., Davey, and Graham M. Pilling. “Restoration of Reefs.” In The Biology of Coral Reefs, 297–99. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  8. Correa, Adrienne S. “Reef Solutions” Coral Reef Ecosystems, 13 April 2017, Rice University, Houston TX. Class Lecture.

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Coral Reefs: Guardians of the Coast

 

One aspect we typically don’t think about with regards to how coastal economies survive, is the longevity of the land itself. Beaches and other coastal areas are constantly changing under erosion, and if these places do not receive the proper protection, the land could disappear over time, taking with it many people’s livelihoods.

This is where coral reefs come in. Last time, I discussed ecotourism, an important producer of revenue for many coastal economies surrounded by reefs. Another important economic service coral reefs provide coastal economies with is protection against erosion, although it’s not just economies at stake. Somewhere upwards of 30 million people live on low coral islands and atolls, and the disappearance of these land masses would mean millions of people being uprooted from their homes, giving coastal protection programs even greater significance (Image 1).

Image 1. Low-lying islands and reefs of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Credit: Curt Storlazzi/USGS
(Source: http://ift.tt/2pIZuLU)

It has been found that live corals, along with seagrasses and mangroves, protect coastal areas more than any single habitat or combination of habitats1. Corals specifically, have been shown to limit the impact of waves and storms on coastal areas1, protecting them in the long term. Even more good news, reefs near coastal areas can potentially reduce wave height by up to half a meter in some locations2. This reduction in wave height could significantly reduce erosion on a land mass over time. Although it does not completely put erosion to a stop, it extends the time that the area will be habitable by human populations living there and bringing in revenue from the resources off the coast.

One large factor in whether it is worth maintaining reefs near coasts for the protection they provide is cost. Fortunately, natural defenses for the coast, such as reefs and mangroves, are two to five times cheaper than manmade breakwaters2. This is hugely important because no matter how effective reefs are in protecting coastal areas, and subsequently, their economies, if it is not financially feasible, it will not be done.

Image 2. Artificial reefs being prepared to be stationed near the coast of Riviera Maya in Mexico.
(Source: reefball.com)

In areas particularly prone to large storms and hurricanes, even artificial reefs have been shown to effectively defend coastal areas, although currently, it is not known how to help these reefs last and support life long-term(Image 2). However, because studies have consistently shown that coral reefs provide significant shelter to coastal areas from frequent erosion, I think it is well worth it for coastal economies to invest in the protection of reefs, if not for the reefs’ sakes, but for their own.

 

References
1 Guannel, Greg, et al. “The power of three: coral reefs, seagrasses and mangroves protect coastal regions and increase their resilience.” PloS one 11.7 (2016): e0158094.

2 Narayan, Siddharth, et al. “The Effectiveness, Costs and Coastal Protection Benefits of Natural and Nature-Based Defences.” PloS one 11.5 (2016): e0154735.

3 Silva, Rodolfo, et al. “An artificial reef improves coastal protection and provides a base for coral recovery.” Journal of Coastal Research 75.sp1 (2016): 467-471.

4American Geophysical Union. “Climate change reduces coral reefs’ ability to protect coasts.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 July 2015.

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