By Bjorn Carey
More than half the world’s coral reefs have died since the dawn of the industrial age, due to human activities and ever increasing ocean temperatures. Stanford’s Steve Palumbi has a plan for bringing them back to life.
Just around the corner from Steve Palumbi's office at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station is a small, unmarked room with white cinder block walls. The metal shelves are coated with the white crust that metal grows when it's exposed to a salty breeze, and are stacked high with fish tanks that fill the room with a constant gurgle.
There are no fish in these tanks, though, just thumb-size chunks of colorful coral, carefully arranged in grids. Next to the tanks are collections of lighting equipment, fans, power converters and other electronic gear. It's part pet store, part mad scientist's laboratory.
"Welcome to the 'Monterey Bay coral reef,'" said Palumbi, the Harold A. Miller Professor in Marine Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Steve Palumbi diving in American Samoa, with "tabletop" coral in the foreground
Although corals play a starring role in vacation photo albums, their importance to global ecosystems and economies is often overlooked. Worldwide, coral reefs provide an estimated $30 billion net economic benefit each year. A healthy coral reef provides a home to thousands of organisms, which island subsistence communities rely on for the bulk of their diet. A reef's mere presence can quell the waves whipped up by a surging storm, thereby guarding low-lying coastal towns from flooding.
Unfortunately, the corals in Palumbi's lab are in much better shape than those in the oceans. Scientists estimate that 30 to 60 percent of all the coral reefs on the planet have been wiped out since the industrial revolution. As human-caused climate change has warmed the oceans, huge swathes of rainbow-colored coral that can't withstand the heat have died and turned white, a process known as bleaching. At the same time, the uptick in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has turned the oceans more acidic, which has slowed coral growth rates.
With ocean temperatures expected to increase an additional 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, scientists generally predict a very gloomy future for coral. Palumbi, however, is more optimistic.
"The thing corals have going for them is that they make rock and they're capable of growing islands, entire structures that you can see from space," Palumbi said. "If we can find a way to help them do that, then we've got a leg up and can help that future be better."
And here, in this cinder block closet, Palumbi and his students might have found a way to do just that.
Palumbi is a card-carrying ocean lover. He began raising tropical fish in elementary school and was a frequent visitor to the local aquarium. By high school, he had filled his parents' basement with fish tanks and was selling rare species to the local pet store. He fell in love with corals during a summer research trip to Jamaica as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins University. "I went to work every morning on the same reef and got to know it extremely well, all the corals, sand channels and sheer walls," Palumbi said.
Even his band is ocean themed: Sustainable Sole has written and recorded several songs about the behavior of marine animals and the pressures they face, including "Crab Love" and "The Last Fish Left."
"Give him a mask and a snorkel, and he's the happiest guy in the world," said Rachael Bay, one of Palumbi's graduate students and a research collaborator.
For the past several years, Palumbi has been studying two particular coral populations in a lagoon along the white sandy beaches of Ofu, a small island in American Samoa.
One population of Acropora hyacinthus coral – dubbed "table top coral" for its round, flat appearance – grows in water that often hits the high 80s Fahrenheit, which is warm for corals, but not unusual. The other reef, composed of the same species, rests just a few hundred yards away, but the water here doesn't mix as much with the cool incoming tides, and so it commonly reaches 95 F. That's well warmer than corals can typically survive; hotter even than what most climate models project for the world's oceans in the next century.
And yet, these corals thrive.
"They're actually doing better under heat stress because they've adapted to express genes that produce proteins that protect them against the physiological damage of the heat," Palumbi said.
When Palumbi and his colleagues transplanted coral from the cooler pool into the hotter one, those corals died. Genetic testing revealed that although they possessed the same DNA code to produce the protective proteins, they didn't activate it in time to withstand the warmer temperatures.
So Palumbi and his colleagues tried something slower. They moved cool corals into the hotter pool in winter, giving the little colonies a few months to acclimate to this water before the heat of summer. These corals survived. Subsequent genetic tests revealed that these survivors had activated the genes necessary for producing the protective proteins. Then the scientists repeated this in the lab – a complex snarl of tubes and pipes set up on the beach in American Samoa. In this careful setting they showed corals could gain heat resistance in as little as two weeks.
If all corals have the potential to stand up to hotter temperatures hidden away in their genome, Palumbi dared to think, perhaps it's too early to begin writing the animal's obituary.
Rutgers Findings May Predict the Future
NSU President Teaches Underwater Lesson
Drones Open Way to New World of Coral Re
New Study Suggests Coral Reefs May be ab
Coral Reefs in Palau Surprisingly Resist
The Coral Whisperer from Franconia
Coral Reefs Provide Protection from Stor
DNA Testing to Help Save Corals
University of Miami Scientists Mobilize
NSU Oceanographic Students Start Crowdso
Can Coral Save Our Oceans?
NOAA lists 20 coral species as threatene
Autonomous Technology Could Save Offshor
Femme 2015 Multibeam User Conference Sav
Scientists on NOAA-led Mission Discover
Roadmap to Recovery to Inform Coral Reef
First Successful Lab Breeding of Rare Ca
A Revolutionary Survival Platform from S
Climate Engineering May Save Coral Reefs
Coral Bleaching Threat Increasing in Wes
Team of Leading Environmental and Aerosp
Ocean Acidification Shakes the Foundatio
Nova Southeastern University Receives Gr
DNV GL Launches Two New JIPs with Potent
K-Tower Data Gives Clues to Coral Growth
NOAA Declares Third Ever Global Coral Bl
Marine Mathematics Helps to Map Undiscov
Mote Takes Next Step in Expanding Its In
Tayport Company to Feature in Documentar
El Niño Warming Causes Significant Coral
NOAA Awards More Than $8 Million for Cor
Digitizing the Coral Reef: You Can Only
NASA's CORAL Campaign Will Raise Reef St
Coral on a Chip Cracks Coral Mysteries
Protecting Coral Reefs with Bubbles
El Niño’s Warm Water Devastates Coral Re
Extensive Coral Communities Found in Ala
Rich Coral Communities Discovered in Pal
WWII Bombs Provide Living Laboratories f
Stanford Scientists Discover Coral Reef
Corilla Marine Helps Save Kenya’s Fragil
Verisk Analytics, Inc., Acquires Quest O
NOAA Awards $9.3 Million to Advance Cora
A New Three-Year NASA Field Expedition t
Global First in Marine Telemedicine - In
Dead Zones May Threaten Coral Reefs Worl
Arnold Schwarzenegger Teams Up with Jean
Fish Social Lives May Be Key to Saving C
Sea Floor Erosion in Coral Reef Ecosyste
A Brave New World for Coral Reefs
Scientists and Astronauts Creates World'
FSU Researcher Makes Deep-Sea Coral Reef
Valeport Supports Quest for New Marine D
18th Century Nautical Charts Reveals Cor
Improved Monitoring of Coral Reefs with
RINA to Support Eni’s Coral South FLNG P
Photomosaic Technology to Find Order in
Eni Achieves Financial Close for Coral S
Scientists Get Early Look at Hurricane D
Coral Reefs May Be at Risk from Sanchi O
Innovative Restoration of Coral Reefs He
This Soft Robotic Fish Swims Alongside R
New Control Methods Can Help Protect Cor
Coral Reefs Protects Coasts from Severe
XPRIZE Turns to the Crowd to Save Coral
Scientists Discover Coral 'Oases' Where
Lloyd’s Register Supports Coral South FL
Turbine Refurbish Contract Expected to S
Alvin Makes an Exciting Coral Discovery
New Soft Coral Species Discovered in Pan
130-Year-Old Brain Coral Reveals Encoura
Florida's Coral Reefs Provide Window int
NOAA Awards Over $8.3 million to Advance
Sunscreen Chemicals and Coral Reefs
Deep Submersible Dives Shed Light on Rar
NOAA Buoy Helps Save Lives
NOAA Awards $9.3 Million for Coral Reef
Launching of Groundbreaking Florida Keys