'It's really shocking': Study on coral bleaching highlights importance of Bay Area research

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For Marine biologist Alejandra Hernandez, Ph.D., exploring the world's coral reefs with the California Academy of Sciences has been both exhilarating, and at times disheartening. Especially, when she's come across evidence of the damage being blamed on climate change and rising ocean temperatures. An effect known as coral bleaching.

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"And seeing the corals bleaching is just, it's really shocking and sad," says Hernandez.

In her office at the Academy, she shows off the bright white skeleton of a dead coral, which contrasts with the colors often visible a few feet beneath ocean's surface, produced by organisms, like algae, that attach themselves to living coral and thrive in healthy reefs. It's a symbiotic relationship that can be disrupted when waters become too warm.

"And in such cases, then that symbiosis, that relationship between the coral and the algae, it's not positive for the coral anymore. So the coral release that algae," she explains, sometimes with destructive consequences.

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A new report sponsored by the United Nations, is revealing that some 14 percent of the world's coral reefs have disappeared in the space of a decade. Among of the main drivers: ocean warming, and coral bleaching.

The coral reef study was one of the largest of its kind and may serve as a global warning.

Here in the Bay Area, researchers have already been hard at work on new ways to protect our ocean habitats. One concern is rising ocean temperatures and stressed ecosystems disrupting the marine food chain, potentially impacting the fisheries that provide the sea food we eat, and the migration of animals that grace our shores.

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"Animals like whales and birds, who come and visit marine mammals and birds that come to our coasts and rely on our ecosystems here for nesting for feeding," says Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D.

Johnson is also part of a diverse California Academy of Sciences team, working on marine solutions. Programs including Thriving California, the Resilient Islands Initiative, and Hope for Reefs, which created one of the early aquarium-based laboratories for coral spawning. All with the goal of reintroducing species, restoring endangered habitats and supporting bio-diversity in oceans around the globe.

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"So it's changing pretty quickly because of what we've done to the planet. But it's also so big we can make a difference if we make changes now," says Johnson.

Hernandez believes the Academy's work on restoring habitats is a strong start, along with careful stewardship of areas under stress.

"And then contribute to whatever is there maintain it in the best way," she says.

And if there is a hopeful note - The report also pointed out that habitats like reefs can successfully regenerate themselves, if they're given enough time, and a healthy environment to recover.

For more information on the California Academy of Sciences programs you can visit: https://www.calacademy.org/

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