By Genna Santilli
Photo by Farrin Khan
When coral reefs are mentioned, picturesque corals with vibrant colors surrounded by tropical fish swimming around is the image that would normally come to mind. The mere idea of corals in climates such as New England seems a bit far-fetched. After all, New England is pretty cold compared to tropical corals, like the Great Barrier Reef. However, with global climate change occurring at a much faster rate than scientists originally expected, and an expected increase of two degrees Celsius to occur within this century, learning about how a New England coral survives in the ever-changing weather patterns of New England could help to save tropical corals in the near future, and protect pivotal ecosystems that have immense amounts of biodiversity. Being able to identify new methods of protecting biodiverse areas, such as coral reefs, will help scientists in protecting key ecosystems in the future from changing climates.
New England is certainly no stranger to rapid changes in weather, and most New Englanders will tell you that if you do not like the weather in New England at the moment, you simply have to wait a couple minutes. From extreme snowfalls, such as “Snowmeggadon” back in 2015, to torrential rain and storm surges that occur on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, organisms that are native to New England have a lot to live through. Especially if that organism is a coral, like the Northern Star.
The Northern Star coral is a native New England coral made of hard, calcified coral, and does not grow any bigger than the size of a fist, according to a Boston University ecologist, Randi Rotjan (3). One of the ways that it is especially unique, according to Rotjan, is that it can survive “bleaching.” When a coral is bleached, it means that the coral is not healthy or that it is dying, and it turns white like bleach does to clothes. The bleaching also causes a coral to expel the algae that live inside of it. The algae that live inside corals are an important part of the health of the coral. Algae inside of corals are also responsible for the vibrant coloring of corals that we see (1). Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached dramatically as of 2016, according to National Geographic reports.2 Coral bleaching is one of the many effects of climate change on tropical corals, due to oceans becoming increasingly warmer and more acidic as a result of climate change. Earth’s oceans are one of the biggest carbon sinks on the planet, absorbing 26 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. When carbon reacts with the ocean, it creates carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidification, which in turn, increases the temperature of the ocean, affecting tropical corals across the globe and perpetuating the bleaching of corals.
Corals also need “symbionts,” or small organisms that live inside them. When those symbionts leave, most likely due to warming waters, the corals become a pale white color. The Northern Star coral is uniquely different because it has learned to survive without those symbionts, or does not require the same number of symbionts that tropical corals need in order to survive. The New England climate loves its changing of the seasons, from a severely hot summer to an Arctic-like winter, and the Northern Star is no stranger to this. Researchers in New England are looking further into the full life cycle of this little New England coral in order to understand how it lives, and see how they can use the information gathered about its life cycle to help tropical corals survive in the future. Understanding the Northern Star’s resilience in a climate such as New England’s will help scientists learn how to combat coral bleaching in tropical climates, and possibly protect tropical corals as global and sea temperatures rise.
Tropical corals provide an abundance of diverse species and resources that provide the Earth with food, medicine, and jobs, especially to island nations around corals who rely on the resources provided by them. If the Earth warms by two degrees Celsius, corals will cease to exist, according to Koty Sharp, an ecologist at Roger Williams University (3). As climate change becomes increasingly prevalent, more coral reefs are being bleached at a rate that is impossible for them to recover from. Research collected by scientists about New England corals and how they survive rapid changes in ocean temperatures could help combat the effects of bleaching on tropical corals, and protect a key ecosystem from the effects of climate change.
The amount of resources that coral reef ecosystems provide is tremendously important and pivotal, not only to the island nations surrounding them, but for the rest of the planet as well. Scientists discovering new ways to help protect and save them will be crucial in the near future. Figuring out how to protect and save coral reefs before global temperatures rise beyond one and a half degrees Celsius will be key in protecting this ecosystem against the dire effects of climate change that are now inevitable. With global surface temperatures and sea levels on the rise, protecting biodiverse resources such as coral reefs will become increasingly important, not only for scientists, but for the global community as well. Being able to understand how corals live in different climates separate from tropical ones will help scientists learn how they can protect corals all across the globe. Scientists can focus on the most important prevention of all: halting the loss of biodiverse ecosystems that are incredibly important resources to the world.
1. “Coral.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation. 23 Jan. 2020 <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral>
2. James, Lauren E. “Half of the Great Barrier Reef Is Dead.” National Geographic. 7 Aug. 2018 <www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/08/explore-atlas-great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-map-climate-change/>
3. Moran, Barbara. “How A Tough New England Coral May Help Its Tropical Cousins.” WBUR. WBUR. 23 Aug. 2019 <www.wbur.org/earthwhile/2019/08/23/northern-star-coral>