Member Highlight: Racing To Save Florida’s Coral From Climate Change, Scientists Turn To A Once-Unthinkable Strategy: ‘Assisted Evolution’

2018-07-16T14:58:46+00:00 July 16, 2018|
(Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

(Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

 In a hurricane-proof lab miles down the Florida Keys, scientists coddle, the way a parent might, tiny pieces of coral from the moment they are spawned until they are just hearty enough to be separated into specimens equipped to survive in the wild.

(From LA Times/ By Evan Halper) —Then these dark-green fragments are put through misery, plunged into tanks mimicking the hotter, more acidic waters projected to one day overtake the tropical region. Many coral samples will die, but those that endure the hostile testing will be painstakingly transplanted back in the Atlantic.

For generations, marine biologists working around this stunning, 360-mile coral reef made sure their research didn’t disturb the fragile kaleidoscope of marine habitat so critical to the local ecosystem, not to mention a multibillion-dollar tourist economy.

But as global warming rapidly brings the natural wonder to the brink of extermination, scientists are abandoning their hands-off approach in favor of a once-unthinkable strategy: a massive intervention to manipulate the natural balance of the reef.

The work is pioneering, and some say unsettling. It is generating both hope and exasperation. And it is being watched closely by entrepreneurs and technologists, who see opportunity in this unprecedented effort to bring what scientists call “assisted evolution” to the wild.

On Summerland Key, an army of scientists is trying to rebuild thousands of square acres of the reef one centimeter at a time, cutting tens of thousands of coral microfragments, toughening them up in the lab and replanting them in the ocean piece by piece.

At the nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo, scuba divers are delicately hanging small corals on rows and rows of artificial “trees” constructed of plastic pipe in an underwater nursery, where they nourish themselves until they are ready to be replanted.

Both efforts are part of a laborious, costly international experiment that researchers say offers the only hope for warding off total devastation of reef systems worldwide that provide the primary source of food to as many as a billion people and a home to one quarter of all marine species at some point in their lives.

“We have no choice now,” said Michael Crosby, chief executive of Mote Marine Laboratory, which runs the 19,000-square-foot laboratory on Summerland Key. “These coral are not able to come back on their own. They are really sliding into functional extinction.”

It’s a now familiar cliché in the Florida Keys and in the many other coastal areas where coral is on life-support: The reefs are the canary in the coal mine of climate change. This is not about projections of what might come if emissions continue unabated. The havoc is already here.

Some 95% of the coral on the Florida Reef Tract has already died. While the damage was not exclusively caused by…

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