The way corals change the world

“The way corals change the world—with huge construction projects spanning multiple generations—might be likened to the way that humans do, with this crucial difference. Instead of displacing other creatures, corals support them. Thousands—perhaps millions—of species have evolved to rely on coral reefs, either directly for protection or food, or indirectly, to prey on those species that come seeking protection or food. “This coevolutionary venture has been under way for many geologic epochs. Researchers now believe it won’t last out the Anthropocene. “It is likely that reefs will be the first major ecosystem in the modern era to become ecologically extinct” is how a trio of British scientists recently put it. Some give reefs until the end of the century, others less time even than that. A paper published in Nature by the former head of the One Tree Island Research Station, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, predicted that if current trends continue, then by around 2050 visitors to the Great Barrier Reef will arrive to find “rapidly eroding rubble banks.”

“ CAME to One Tree more or less by accident. My original plan had been to stay on Heron Island, where there’s a much larger research station and also a ritzy resort. On Heron, I was going to watch the annual coral spawning and observe what had been described to me in various Skype conversations as a seminal experiment on ocean acidification. Researchers from the University of Queensland were building an elaborate Plexiglas mesocosm that was going to allow them to manipulate CO2 levels on a patch of reef, even as it allowed the various creatures that depend on the reef to swim in and out. By changing the pH inside the mesocosm and measuring what happened to the corals, they were going to be able to generate predictions about the reef as a whole. I arrived at Heron in time to see the spawning—more on this later—but the experiment was way behind schedule and the mesocosm still in pieces. Instead of the reef of the future, all there was to see was a bunch of anxious graduate students hunched over soldering irons in the lab.”

“As I was trying to figure out what to do next, I heard about another experiment on corals and ocean acidification that was under way at One Tree, which, by the scale of the Great Barrier Reef, lies just around the corner. Three days later—there is no regular transportation to One Tree—I managed to get a boat over.

The head of the team at One Tree was an atmospheric scientist named Ken Caldeira. Caldeira, who’s based at Stanford, is “often credited with having coined the term “ocean acidification.” He became interested in the subject in the late nineteen-nineties when he was hired to do a project for the Department of Energy. The department wanted to know what the consequences would be of capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks and injecting it into the deep sea. At that point, almost no modeling work had been done on the effects of carbon emissions on the oceans. Caldeira set about calculating how the ocean’s pH would change as a result of deep-sea injection, and then compared that result with the current practice of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and allowing it to be absorbed by surface waters. In 2003, he submitted his results to Nature. The journal’s editors advised him to drop the discussion of deep-ocean injection because the calculations concerning the effects of ordinary atmospheric release were so startling.

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