coral reef

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Senior Writer, Formative Content


Scientists from Israel and neighbouring Arab countries are joining forces to save Red Sea coral reefs from the threat of climate change.

The alliance is the brainchild of Moaz Fine, an Israeli professor at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who invited marine experts from the countries that border the Red Sea to collaborate at a new research centre. The team will comprise representatives from Israel, Eritrea, Jordan and Egypt, with scientists from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti, which do not recognise Israel.

The countries have put aside political differences in the interests of protecting the natural world they share.

Coping with stress

Scientists, ecologists and oceanographers will come together at the new research centre, based in Bern, Switzerland, to study the impact of bleaching on the Red Sea reefs.

Bleaching occurs when coral reacts to changes in sea temperature, light conditions or nutrients. As global warming increases water temperatures, the delicate balance of reef ecosystems is disrupted, forcing coral to eject the algae that live and feed on them.

What is coral bleaching?

Image: National Ocean Service

The stressed coral turns white and although it isn’t dead at this point, if the algae loss is prolonged it becomes vulnerable to disease and can eventually die.

But it’s not just coral that is affected when bleaching occurs, as algae forms the foundation of multiple food chains. When algae disappears, creatures higher up the food chain disappear too, turning bleached reefs into underwater deserts.

A climate of change

Although global warming is increasing the scale and frequency of mass bleaching events, coral in the Red Sea has suffered less damage than reefs in other parts of the world, such as in Hawaii and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The research team will investigate studies that suggest Northern Red Sea corals and those in the Gulf of Aqaba are able to withstand higher sea temperatures than in other places, which could help the fight to save the world’s reefs.

 

Bleaching events have already devastated large parts of the Great Barrier Reef, which is the world’s largest. Within the last five years more than 30% of the vast reef system is either dead or is threatened with extinction due to rising sea temperatures. That’s an area equal to the size of Italy.

On a global scale, climate change, overfishing and destructive fishing, coastal development and ocean pollution are putting the very existence of our reefs at risk.

Image: World Resources Institute

As the chart shows, more than half of the Earth’s reefs could be under threat by 2030, and without drastic action most of our reefs could be gone by mid-century.

As well as hosting millions of plant and marine species, reefs often support employment and tourism in coastal communities. The Red Sea reefs attract diving enthusiasts from all over the world, attracted by colourful marine life and indiginous red and black corals. Their loss could have devastating environmental and economic consequences for current and future generations.

It is hoped that the new research centre will help develop more resilient corals, which will protect reefs and the livelihoods of people who depend on them.