Stony Corals Seem to Be Preparing for a Mass Extinction, Scientists Report
Stony corals provide habitat for an eye-popping one-fourth of the ocean's species. They serve as the centerpiece of a rich and diverse ecosystem, which is why their recent behavior has scientists concerned. New research shows that stony corals around the world are hunkering down into survival mode as they prepare for a mass extinction event, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.
The international research team was composed of scientists from New York, California, Israel, England and Germany. They noticed a suite of behaviors that correspond to a survival response commensurate with how they behaved during the last mass extinction 66 million years ago, according to the new study.
"When we finally put all this together and saw the result, for me it was that moment when the hair on the back of your neck stands up," said marine biologist David Gruber, from The City University of New York, to Newsweek. "It was like, Oh my goodness, [the corals] are doing exactly what they did back then."
The researchers had a rich-history of corals to compare with modern species. Coral skeletons leave an indelible, time-stamped fossil record for scientists to examine the conditions that led to their dying. The scientists were able to compare those fossils with the 839 coral species on the red list of threatened species recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as Newsweek reported.
The scientists looked at the traits of corals that survived the last major extinction event. They found that the colorful, wavy corals that attract scuba divers did not last. The ones that did survive are the ones that form small colonies and seek out deep water, which are the same ones showing signs of thriving today, as Newsweek reported.
"It was incredibly spooky to witness how corals are now exhibiting the same traits as they did at the last major extinction event," said Gruber, in a statement put out by the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center. "Corals seem to be preparing to jump across an extinction boundary, while we are putting our foot further on the pedal."
Coral reefs around the world are struggling. Recently, a mysterious virus has wiped out large swaths of Caribbean corals, a marine heatwave is threatening the health of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the climate crisis threatens to wipe out most corals by 2100, and corals in the Red Sea are struggling to spawn, according to recent research, as Earth.com reported.
Researchers who monitored coral spawning in the Red Sea for four years found that males and females were acting erratically and missing each other's spawning events, leading to fewer juvenile coral, which paves the way toward extinction, as Earth.com reported.
"Regardless of the exact cause leading to these declines in spawning synchrony, our findings serve as a timely wake-up call to start considering these subtler challenges to coral survival, which are very likely also impacting additional species in other regions," said Tom Shlesinger, one of the lead researchers on the Red Sea study.
As for the mass extinction that corals seem to be preparing for, Gruber told Newsweek, "We can put a person on the moon, we can come up with all these amazing technologies. We can reverse this in due time if we have the motivation. But what the data is showing is that we're not doing that. We're putting our foot further on the pedal, whereas the corals are reacting and changing."
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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