Within a week, healthy and vibrant corals had turned white

Within a week, healthy and vibrant corals had turned white.
A young English biologist is in a race to save the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Will she manage in time?

By Bruno Lobo, Visão
Published in February 2020icon-clockTime to read: 2min 16s

In 2016, Emma Camp landed in Sydney for the first time. In her baggage she had a PhD in Marine Biology, a research grant awarded by the Australian government and a plan to save the corals. At not even 30 years old, “for a coral biologist, there was no better place in the world to work,” she tells us now, at 32, from her laboratory at the University of Technology Sydney.

Unfortunately, she had only just arrived in Australia when “the great discolouration” began, a phenomenon caused by an increase in the temperature of the sea water that has affected practically all of the coral reef colonies in the world. She only realised the extent of the damage when the same thing happened the following year, and only 10% to 40% of the coral reefs had survived intact. The second time, Camp helplessly watched the devastating scenario: “In the space of a week, healthy corals, vibrant and full of colour, had turned completely white.” Similar events had occurred previously, but never of such magnitude. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia (GBR) has lost a surface area equivalent to a third of the size of Italy.

“A lot of people erroneously think that corals are plants, when in fact they are animals, but they are also composed of microalgae that live on the skin. The microalgae are responsible for providing the majority of nutrients through photosynthesis, but the corals also feed on other algae and small fish,” she explains. “Therefore, when your children ask what is the largest animal on earth, don’t tell them it is the blue whale or the elephant, it is the Great Barrier Reef. It is, in fact, the largest living organism, composed of two thousand and more individual coral reefs.”

But the GBR, like all the other reefs in the world, is dangerously threatened by climate change. Warmer and more acidic waters, with less oxygen, cause stress to the corals which then expel the colourful algae from their organisms, leading to their loss of colour. Since the algae are the main source of energy, the coral dies in a few days.

It is a disaster with unimaginable consequences for the planet and scientists know that the occurrences of discolouration will happen again, perhaps with greater frequency and intensity. “A significant proportion of the scientific community believes that by 2030, all the corals may have already died.”

But Emma Camp wants to have a say in the matter. Even while working on her PhD, she discovered that among the mangroves, in places such as New Caledonia, there are colonies that survive and thrive in much more hostile environments. “Why not look at nature and try to understand how those corals have adapted and at what cost?” she thought. Hoping to discover how this resilience works, they transplanted corals from these mangroves to the Great Barrier Reef and vice versa, and are analysing how the species evolve in new environments: “The idea is, of course, to identify the best ones to replant the reefs if necessary.”

Her work has been recognised by the scientific community, as happened recently when she was elected Associate Laureate, at the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. The ceremony took place in Washington DC, in parallel with the National Geographic Explorers festival. Previously, she had been elected as a United Nations Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals, speaking to an audience of world leaders: “Not everyone realises the importance of losing an ecosystem such as a reef, and these awards provide a platform to communicate it, not only to the leaders, but to the world.”

Because even today, Emma Camp remembers well the day she put her head in the water and saw, for the first time, “the underwater city, full of colour and life.” Being English, “I did not have a lot of contact with coral reefs, but I was lucky that my family went on holiday to the Caribbean when I was 6 years old”. A privilege that she strives to pass on to future generations.

Article published in the Portuguese magazine VISÃO, within the scope of the Ocean of Hope partnership, an initiative to give voice to the extraordinary individuals and organisations working to build a more sustainable planet and future.

Partnership Series