New Scientist: Inside The Battle to Save the Great Barrier Reef from Climate Change

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Apparently the Great Barrier Reef is so dead from climate change it needs teams of well funded scientists to run around planting coral. Except for the embarrassingly healthy bits Peter Ridd photographed, of course.

Inside the fight to save the Great Barrier Reef from climate change

Our reporter, Donna Lu, joined the researchers who are attempting to regrow damaged parts of the Great Barrier Reef by collecting and incubating coral larvae

LIFE 6 January 2021
By Donna Lu

“I RECOMMEND getting inside the net. It’s very good for you,” jokes marine ecologist Peter Harrison. “It’s good for your skin, it’s good for your clothes.”

The net in question is a giant, slimy thing, with a fine mesh at its base that contains a precious cargo: coral larvae that have been incubating in the ocean for five days. Some white sun shirts have already fallen casualty to the net, getting coated in a greenish algal stain on contact.

The task on the boats today is to collect larvae from three floating nursery pools in Wistari Reef, where they have been maturing, and seed them onto damaged sections of reef that no longer have live corals. The net of each pool hangs from a square pontoon that is roughly 3 by 3 metres in size.

The team won’t be able to see the results of its handiwork for several years. The larvae have been captured from corals that have survived recent mass bleaching events, so the idea is that their offspring may also be more heat tolerant. The researchers hope to upscale the restoration across more sites in the future, using robots to disperse larvae more efficiently.

Read more:

I’m sure its loads of fun sailing around the Great Barrier Reef on the taxpayer’s dime, but I wonder how much harm the scientists may be causing?

Coral survived the last 200+ million years because of its genetic diversity. No matter what crisis or extinction event Coral experienced, some members of the species were genetically different enough from their peers to to survive and continue the species.

From 2018;

Genetic diversity is key to coral survival

18 April 2018

A team of Western Australian researchers is a step closer to understanding how coral reefs re-seed themselves and adapt to growing environmental threats.

Genetic diversity is critical to helping animal species adapt to change but this team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Curtin University and the Western Australian Museum has for the first time, tracked genetic diversity in coral through time. 

In a novel study spanning 10 years, the researchers looked at the impact that coral bleaching and cyclones have had on the abundance and genetic diversity of a reef-building coral in northwest Australia’s reefs.

“Until recently, we did not know how genetic diversity actually responds to disturbance associated with climate change: in this study, we found that high levels of genetic diversity have been maintained in these corals over the last decade despite severe bleaching and cyclones” Dr Underwood said.

Read more:

I doubt ecologist Peter Harris’ seeding efforts are going to make that much difference – the Great Barrier Reef is simply too enormous for the habitat to be significantly affected by a few patches of cultivated coral.

But surely every act of propagating one narrow slice of human cultivated genotypes at the expense of wild genotypes which might otherwise have thrived in the cultivated locations, in a small way undermines the very genetic diversity which is the key to coral’s long term survival. Even if the cultivars thrive in current conditions, their success will accelerate the depletion of the genetic diversity which the coral may need when conditions change.

It just seems wrong to undermine the genetic diversity which has protected coral through far worse events than anything we are likely to do to the planet, even if the impact of the intervention is likely to be negligible.

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Ed Bo
January 9, 2021 10:06 am

Come on! It can’t be worse than introducing rabbits to Australia…

Reply to  Ed Bo
January 9, 2021 10:36 am

I’d kind of like to see kangaroos introduced to America at the very least to match our courts.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Scissor
January 10, 2021 9:26 am

Why America? Didn’t they come from England originally?

Reply to  Ed Bo
January 9, 2021 11:49 am

I’ve culled both rabbits and cane toads.
I know which I preferred to skin, gut, cook an eat.

Pat from kerbob
Reply to  Mr.
January 9, 2021 12:50 pm

I visited Oz in 2004, was driving at night after a huge storm and I started hitting these balls on the highway, cane toads that had left the flooded areas on both sides of the hiway

Popped like balloons when you hit them, could feel through the steering wheel

Road got pretty greasy

Reply to  Pat from kerbob
January 9, 2021 5:37 pm

Almost as repulsive as marxist /socialist/ democrats !

Patrick MJD
Reply to  Pat from kerbob
January 9, 2021 7:40 pm

Drivers actively do this in Qld. Be careful of a Wombat or a Big Red Roo though, it will destroy your suspension/car.

Reply to  Pat from kerbob
January 9, 2021 8:52 pm

Classic scene in the 1980’s cult classic “Cane Toads” of a car driving down a road infested with cane toads, swerving left and right to get them all.

Patrick MJD
Reply to  Mr.
January 9, 2021 7:37 pm

Make sure your diet includes more than rabbit alone. It will kill you.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Patrick MJD
January 10, 2021 9:31 am

If you add cane toads to your diet, you will die even more quickly. BTW, how did the Eskimos survive on an almost exclusive meat diet?

January 9, 2021 10:13 am

I doubt ecologist Peter Harris’ seeding efforts are going to make that much difference….

…none, zero

but as long as it keeps them off the streets

YallaYPoora Kid
Reply to  Latitude
January 9, 2021 2:08 pm

At the taxpayer expense – what a fiddle, how about they work for a living instead of bludging! 10 year project . . . Hmmm, who will make the QA check to ensure our hard earned has an ROI?

Reply to  YallaYPoora Kid
January 10, 2021 1:00 am

the left thinks it makes Australia look smart

Reply to  Latitude
January 9, 2021 5:57 pm

And of course when the reef continues to thrive it will be because of their efforts. 😉

Reply to  Latitude
January 10, 2021 3:53 am

‘Coral survived the last 200+ million years because of its genetic diversity.’

If I’m not mistaken than the recent 3.5 Ma are the coldest of the last 200 Ma. Maybe therefore they call them the Ice Age. If everything before the Ice Age was warmer why would corals have a problem with a warmer Earth ?

Ron Long
January 9, 2021 11:22 am

These “reef scientists” are having a delusional great time on taxpayer expense. Reefs were able to survive variable environments for hundreds of millions of years, including both warmer and cooler climate cycles. Sheesh!

Rich Davis
Reply to  Ron Long
January 9, 2021 11:31 am

Reefer madness.

However, I see the plot here. They discovered that the GBR is doing just fine. It’s therefore critical to ensure that nobody comes to the mistaken conclusion that Climate Change ™ is not k!lling the coral. When healthy reefs are photographed in the future, that will only prove that these pioneers have succeeded despite the ravages of CO2.

Paul Johnson
Reply to  Rich Davis
January 9, 2021 1:04 pm

Exactly. It’s the rainmaker scam. Perform an elaborate but meaningless public ritual and then claim credit when rain inevitably falls. At the GBR recovers on its own, we should expect a sprinkle, then a downpour of “scientific” papers on how successful these charades have been.

Reply to  Ron Long
January 9, 2021 12:11 pm

The stand-out reference for coral reefs survival / regeneration is surely the Bikini Atoll lagoon reefs, which were obliterated by atomic bomb testing in the 1950s, but in just 70 years have regenerated to their previous size & health.

All without being examined, poked, prodded by eager “scientists”

Harry Passfield
January 9, 2021 11:31 am

On topic, as it’s the GBR, I now find JoNova is ‘unavailable’. I wonder why….

Harry Passfield
Reply to  Harry Passfield
January 9, 2021 11:34 am

OK…it’s back. Glitch on web, perhaps…

January 9, 2021 11:36 am

The problems will start when they start “improving on nature” and release genetically manipulated strains. Then we will see how resilient wild strains really are, some agricultural species have not done well after pollution by GMO pollen.

Reply to  paranoid goy
January 9, 2021 1:55 pm

Upthread we mentioned rabbits and cane toads into Australia.
Salient examples of your observation about “improving on nature”.

Reply to  Mr.
January 9, 2021 2:58 pm

Pythons in FL, Zebra Mussels in lakes, etc.

Reply to  Dave Fair
January 10, 2021 12:54 am

European yellow-tailed scorpions in Kent and London

Reply to  paranoid goy
January 9, 2021 2:53 pm

What agricultural species “have not done well after pollution by GMO pollen”?

January 9, 2021 11:44 am

I imagine the newsreel will be something like: “New & improved coral reef, vaster in area than ever before thanks to re-seeding by the social distance observing team out & about while funding taxpayers relax.

Joao Martins
January 9, 2021 11:47 am

Those idiots can’t understand a very simple notion from evolution: diversity is the key for survival.

Instead of living on taxpayers money, I would like to see them survive by producing their own food through the application of their “science”!

Most wine producers know that they should not plant pure (single one-clone vineyards) of the “most productive” genotypes! They should mix a few clones of the same variety, each a good performer in a certain kind of weather. This is the way to have a steady production from year to year: each year is different, so in each year some clone will be better, next year another will; in the mixture, these differences os adaptation to different weather conditions are smoothed and the production (and quality) become more regular.

Reply to  Joao Martins
January 9, 2021 2:02 pm

I believe that pedigree horse stud curators in Ireland like to see ~ 80 varieties of grasses and weeds naturally growing in their pastures.
Optimum growth & nutrition.

Maybe coral reefs should be similarly left to their own evolved ways.

January 9, 2021 11:54 am

Now that the world knows the GBR is dead, there’s not much reason for tourists to visit Oz anymore. Time to visit somewhere else.

Mick Walker
January 9, 2021 12:08 pm

The reason that they’re doing this?
Later, when it becomes clear that the reef is not dying, they can say, “That’s because we saved it!”
Otherwise, they’d eventually have to admit that they had been crying wolf.

Ed Bo
January 9, 2021 12:11 pm

Is there any evidence that the GBR is spreading poleward? That would be the case if warming was the key factor affecting the reef.

Pat from kerbob
Reply to  Ed Bo
January 9, 2021 12:45 pm

Not that I’ve read

Also, these same coral species exist in other reefs closer to the equator where the water is even warmer.

It’s all crap

January 9, 2021 12:15 pm

“Until recently, we did not know how genetic diversity actually responds to disturbance associated with climate change: in this study, we found that high levels of genetic diversity have been maintained in these corals over the last decade despite severe bleaching and cyclones” Dr Underwood said.

Maybe they skipped some Genetics courses during undergrad. Maybe they are phony scientists, maybe they want the limelight or maybe they need more grant money from people that don’t even know what a gene is.

Reply to  Pauleta
January 9, 2021 3:02 pm

Genetic diversity despite bleaching and cyclones? Is that a typo? Shouldn’t it be because of?

Reply to  Pauleta
January 9, 2021 8:30 pm

They were at a BLM protest those days for extra lefty credits.

January 9, 2021 1:02 pm

It’s all about feeling good about ones self.
Whether their actions help or hurt the GBR isn’t relevant.

January 9, 2021 2:19 pm

It might be useful to regenerate the coral round tourist impacted areas.

Reply to  peterg
January 9, 2021 6:34 pm

I used to run a company which took between 500 & 1000 tourists a month, depending on season to the 7000 acre Hardy reef, 35 miles off shore in the Whitsunday Islands area of the reef.

Depending on tides, up to 400 people a month would walk on the reef adjacent to our pontoon, & most tourists would snorkel there. All this walking was naturally restricted to with in a couple of hundred meters of our pontoon.

A marine biologist researched the effect of this traffic for their PhD. We assisted her as we would have loved to see reef walking banned. It gave us a lot of extra work, & the constant worry of serious accident to one of our guests.

Her findings, after surveying the entire 30 miles of drying reef surrounding the reef complex for 2 years was that there was no discernible effect on the area so heavily visited by our guests. She got her PhD, but would she to day with such findings?

I experienced a number of cyclones in my 10 years of playing boats, & even a couple of category 3, & close to Cat 4 did little damage to the western side of Hardy. The east & southern side were very hard hit, but the 10 mile stretch facing the passage between it & Hook reef were virtually unaffected, leaving plenty of thriving coral to seed regrowth of the damaged portion.

January 9, 2021 2:51 pm

The Great Barrier Reef is 20 million years old. It has survived numerous glaciation cycles, and dramatic changes in sea-level, temperature, and atmospheric CO2 level. When the water rises or falls, or when it warms or cools, or when atmospheric CO2 level changes, the coral adapt. Contrary to what some activists would like you to believe, studies show that coral are highly resilient. The Great Barrier Reef is doing fine.

Phil Salmon
Reply to  Dave Burton
January 9, 2021 10:22 pm

The GBR thus started life when there was no ice at the South Pole. (Antarctic glaciation started 33 million years ago, but then it melted. It refroze again 16 million years ago.)

That means that when Antarctica has melted completely and is ice free – that will be the time to start worrying about warming effects on the GBR.

Reply to  Phil Salmon
January 10, 2021 4:05 am

At that same location yes. New sea level = new location.

Rory Forbes
January 9, 2021 3:04 pm

Call me old fashioned, but first one needs to show that something is broken before there should be any attempt to repair it. Climate is an existing state, not a thing. It can’ be broken.

It is well documented that our interglacial (The Holocene) has been gradually cooling, naturally, since the Thermal Optimum. However, this has not occurred at a constant rate. It has taken place in step-wise increments, with warm peaks followed by colder periods. Therefore; if the coral bleaching is caused by temperature change, then it must be a recurring event and completely natural. It is more than likely that whatever is happening to the coral is not broken either.

Conclusion: neither the climate nor the coral is broken and requires nothing from us but wonder and admiration of nature’s perfection.

Reply to  Rory Forbes
January 10, 2021 4:00 am

The recent 3.5 Ma have been the coldest of the last 200 Ma.

January 9, 2021 3:37 pm

Those corals in the photo are in big trouble. They have grown and are exposed to the sun, the water will be too warm, and they are likely to suffer storm damage…they will be bleached and dead soon…to become more sandy beach….to save them we need the seas to rise more quickly….

Rory Forbes
Reply to  DMacKenzie
January 9, 2021 5:47 pm

I’m petty sure you were being facetious, but I just wanted to add a small factoid about SLR and corals … they tend to follow sea levels at whatever pace they are rising. If seal levels start to fall … you’ve got a coral island, bless those tiny coral polyps.

January 9, 2021 3:47 pm

Those corals in the photo are in big trouble. They have grown above the water level and will be exposed to too much heat from the sun. The water will be too warm and the zooxanthellae will leave, the pH of rainfall will poison them, and storms will damage them. Soon they will be bleached and dead and will become more beach sand.

Reply to  DMacKenzie
January 9, 2021 6:41 pm

A lot of reef is thus exposed occasionally, but only on the very lowest spring tides, just a few times a year in daylight. I have often wondered if such exposer at night has the same effect as daylight exposer. I agree that even a small fall in sea level would devastate coral as close to the surface, but some of the best coral is to be seen in such beds.

richard moore
January 9, 2021 4:28 pm

How much of the current GBR was above low mean tide mark 20,000 years ago when the oceans of the world were 100 meters lower than today? Does today’s 100 meter mark of depth off the Eastern shore of Australia correspond to this boundary? Just asking.
How many times has this raising and lowering of the ocean occurred so as to provide a base for the current reef structures that might have formed then died from previous drops in ocean levels?

January 9, 2021 4:42 pm

If they want more coral – not that we need more – all they have to is dump mountains of concrete rubble or specially made perforated concrete blocks into the water and stand back.
The correct kind of coral for that particular micro environment will colonize.
That way we can get rid of the mountains of deadwood ”researchers” and we can save some money for more other things.
This coral seeding is silly, monumentally expensive joke which will amount to nothing.

Reply to  Mike
January 10, 2021 3:57 am

As long as you have Big Government the money will just be spent on another useless project to grow government.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Robertvd
January 10, 2021 9:47 am

Yes, one of the downsides of representative democracy is that, in order to get re-elected, legislators have to be able to tell their constituents about all the good things they have done during their tenure. So, if disguised properly, even a ‘Chinese Fire Drill’ may help with re-election. We end up getting saddled with unnecessary laws and projects just so the candidate can say, “See what I have done for you!” There needs to be a requirement to rescind an existing law before a new one gets passed.

Pat from kerbob
January 9, 2021 8:57 pm

So, why don’t we get smart
Start a false flag campaign
Try to get as many people to bombard Australian tourist authorities, state and federal, along with snorkel and scuba associations, any group whose life depends on tourists coming to see the GBR

Send them all emails stating we are considering a visit to Oz, covid willing but expressing deep concern over over reef death and asking if it really is happening, and if it is if it’s due to human CO2, if so we will do our part and cancel all plans to visit.

Force them to publicly state one way or the other

January 9, 2021 9:23 pm

This is a scam. They have adopted a staggeringly incompetent exercise. Sloshing this stuff around is what happens anyway on a vast scale. There are upper and lower currents that continually transport this stew all over the GBR, in very large amounts. Some of it washes up on the beach 200m from my place, and stinks the place up for a while. I suppose it doesn’t matter that their exercise is a totally trivial contribution to the process, unless of course it is public money being wasted.

Coeur de Lion
January 10, 2021 1:52 am

I recall that Dung Beetles were another import.

Michael in Dublin
January 10, 2021 6:59 am

In 2008 Steve Jones, a biologist, published a book, “Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise.” The titles of each chapter were like something out of Aesop’s Fables. Without any knowledge of either the science or of the Great Barrier Reef, anyone used to careful reasoning and logic could see the main arguments of the book were far more Fable than Fact.

Clyde Spencer
January 10, 2021 9:25 am

It just seems wrong to undermine the genetic diversity which has protected coral through far worse events than anything we are likely to do to the planet, even if the impact of the intervention is likely to be negligible.

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions!”

Peter O'Brien
January 10, 2021 1:12 pm

I dived on Heron Reef, which is adjacent to Wistari Reef, in August last year. The corals on Heron Reef are in pristine condition – the best I’ve ever seen them.

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