'Super coral' could ward off devastating effects of warming oceans
by Jillian MacMath, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
February 11, 2016; 3:37 PM ET
As warming ocean waters continue to threaten coral reefs worldwide, researchers at the University of Hawaii have developed a plan that could reverse the rapid decline of these ecosystems. For years, warming waters caused by unnatural levels of carbon dioxide have made corals more susceptible to a phenomenon called bleaching. Coral bleaching occurs when a coral is exposed to stressful conditions in its environment, such as increased water temperatures. This often forces the corals to expel the algae that lives in its tissues, causing it to turn white.
Coral bleaching is affecting reefs worldwide as water temperatures rise. In August of 2014, NOAA researchers documented the extensive damage to this reef off Lisianski Island in Hawaii. (Photo/NOAA) Without algae, the coral lacks a major source of food and becomes more susceptible to disease. While corals can recover from mild bleaching, severe or long-term bleaching is often lethal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In October of 2015, NOAA declared the third global coral bleaching event ever on record, as stressful conditions expanded to the Caribbean, threatening reefs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands southward into the Leeward and Windward islands. "The coral bleaching and disease, brought on by climate change and coupled with events like the current El Nino, are the largest and most pervasive threats to coral reefs around the world," Mark Eakin, NOAA's Coral Reef Watch coordinator, said in a statement.
"As a result, we are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally." To combat these losses, researchers with the University of Hawaii, supported by Microsoft Co-founder Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc., are identifying groups of corals that have been unaffected by warmer waters. These stronger, more resilient strains - nicknamed "super corals" - are then being conditioned to survive in increasingly warmer and more acidic waters.