Academy of Sciences helps battle coral bleaching while developing new technologies

ByTim Didion and Spencer Christian KGO logo
Thursday, May 9, 2024
Academy of Sciences helps battle coral bleaching
The Academy of Sciences is looking for ways to help battle coral bleaching through research and developing new technologies.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area researchers are helping to better understand the damage from a worldwide event that's threatening coral reefs from Australia to Florida.

At the same time, they're working on technologies to help.

Academy of Sciences helps battle coral bleaching.

Describing a newly discovered species of ocean fish is a joy for California Academy of Sciences researcher Luiz Rocha, Ph.D., as he leans over a microscope.

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"We have to count the number of scales in the lateral line and count the number of spines," Rocha said.

But describing the coral reefs that many sea creatures call home is increasingly frightening. Rocha just returned from an expedition to Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef. A habitat, now caught in a global event called coral bleaching.

"So coral bleaching happens when water temperatures go up and corals get very stressed and they expel the algae that lives within their tissue," he says.

The result is the bone colored bleaching that indicate the coral could so die off if conditions don't change. This is now the fourth, and possibly worst, global bleaching on record, matched by historic ocean warming.

And during the dive, Rocha and his team made another unsettling discovery scientists hadn't expected. Examining the coral at lower depths, where the water is typically cooler, they found the same warming trend and the same pattern of damage from rising water temperatures.

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"It was supposed to be 76 to 78 degrees. It was 80 to 82 degrees, so it was causing the deep corals to bleach. So even though the deeper water was colder than the shallow water, it was still warmer than normal and causing the deeper corals to bleach," Rocha said.

And the damage is widespread. Recently the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that more than half the world's coral reefs are now experiencing heat stress severe enough to cause bleaching.

And those same rising ocean temperatures are affecting ecosystems well beyond the coral reefs, including the west coast of North America and our own Bay Area shoreline.

Teams from the Academy have been documenting the loss of a predator known as the Sunflower Sea Star. Its disappearance unleased an environmental chain reaction, damaging vital kelp forests that provide habitat to other native species. Academy researcher Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., studies the fallout, and believes it's a collective result of our changing climate.

"I mean, the bleaching, the loss of the Sunflower Stars on our coast, the changes that we've seen here at this reef, I mean, these are all kind of like symptoms of global change," Johnson said.

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The Academy already has two cutting edge programs geared to the future: breeding the sea stars in captivity to preserve their genetic diversity, while at the same time spawning coral that could someday be transplanted to help regenerate damaged reefs.

Luiz Rocha believes coral reintroductions may ultimately be necessary to keep the reefs healthy, pointing out that ecosystems they provide are a lifeline to roughly a third of the ocean's creatures.

"So if the corals die, those species associated with them die. So it's not just the corals that are going to go. There's a lot of species that depend on coral for a number of different reasons," Rocha said.

Still he's hopeful enough of the world's reefs will survive and flourish to form a kind of coral bridge to the future, giving researchers time to develop strategies to help the stressed reefs regenerate. All as the world works to combat the causes of climate change.

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