Creating Corals that Can Survive Climate Change

Coconut Island, site of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, rises from Kaneohe Bay. Light spots in the water are patch reefs, some of which are showing troubling signs of stress. (Courtesy of Ruth Gates)

Keyhole Reef is one of dozens of small reefs rising abruptly from the depths of Kaneohe Bay, one of Hawaii’s most scenic places. The water around it is sapphire blue, and bright schools of tang and triggerfish flit over its surface. But the reef is showing troubling signs of stress these days because of climate change.

Here and there along the steep face of the reef, clumps of coral have turned stark white. This bleaching means the coral has begun to eject the micro-algae that normally live within its tissues and provide up to 90 percent of the nutrients that coral needs to live. And that has scientists worried, because similar things are happening in tropical waters around the world. Coral reefs are one of the planet’s keystone habitats, as rich in species as the rain forest. But they’re even more vulnerable to climate change and the warm, acidic ocean conditions it is creating.

Yet scientists may be coming up with a way to protect the fragile reefs for the warmer world of the future

Ruth Gates, director of the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology, calls the process human-assisted evolution. Last spring, she and Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute for Marine Sciences received a $4 million grant from the family foundation of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen for a plan to develop strains of coral that will be able to withstand changing ocean conditions.

Gates emphasizes that now is the time for scientists to act, while there is still enough diversity on the reef. “As a biologist who’s been looking at reefs for 30 years,” she says, “I’m spectacularly realistic about what I see, and it’s not pretty — and if we don’t do anything about it, it’s going to intensify.”

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