Emma CampReef rescue with the toughest corals
The world’s coral reefs may be largely gone by the 2030s, victims of human activity and climate change, leading scientists have warned – but marine biologist and explorer Emma Camp is determined to prove them wrong.
Exploring and studying a range of coral habitats globally, the British-born researcher has discovered several places where certain corals are managing to prosper, despite the most unfavourable conditions. She is demonstrating how these “hotspots of coral resilience” may hold the key to repopulating reefs ravaged by a warming climate, acidifying water and other human-inflicted damage.
“Corals globally are dying from climate change, from more acidic oceans and waters low in oxygen. But, while we’re desperately trying to lower humanity’s carbon emissions there are very few options beyond that to try to help reefs persist,” Camp says.
Camp observed that some corals naturally live under extreme conditions – more extreme than those being predicted over the next 200 years. “We are now only just discovering where they are surviving. We need to understand how they’re there and why they’re there – and how we can utilize their abilities to help save coral reefs globally.”
In 2016, Camp led a dive team to New Caledonia that documented, for the first time, 20 species of coral thriving under conditions previously considered by science to be too hot and too toxic for them to survive. In 2019, Camp published the first scientific study identifying two similar extreme coral habitats on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Most corals prefer clean, crystal-clear waters low in nutrients and sediment, stable in temperature and rich in oxygen. The corals she found live and thrive amid hostile conditions, in the murky waters around mangroves. To all appearances, they are resilient to the very conditions that humans are inflicting on the world’s reefs.
By identifying similar hotspots of resilience along the 2,000 km of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral assemblage, and studying the behaviour and genetics of these ultra-tough coral survivors, Camp is unlocking new understanding on the mechanisms that support coral resilience. She is now using this knowledge to see how it can be applied to repopulate coral reefs that have been impacted by bleaching and other forms of coral death.
“I believe we need to think outside the box. We need to go back to nature and see how it has survived for so long, and use that knowledge, combined with innovation and technology, to try to conserve what we’ve got,” she explains.
Growing up in urban Britain, Camp first saw a coral reef when her father took her on a snorkelling holiday to the tropics at the age of six. “It was a whole new world under there. I was just blown away. That was when my love for reefs really began. I was just fascinated.”
Nearly three decades later, that awe and love drive her still: “I just don’t want to be part of the generation that says, ‘we lost the coral reefs’.” Corals are not just strange and beautiful – they also support hundreds of millions of human lives, she adds.
Camp is currently studying the two new hot-spots of resilience on the northern Great Barrier Reef – the Low Isles and Howick Island – to research the corals there, identify the key traits in their resilience and then, for the first time, try to transplant them to areas devastated by mass coral death. Helped by citizen scientists in the form of local ecotourism operators, she is monitoring how the corals survive and whether they recolonize devastated areas and retain their resilient qualities in their new home.
If her theories prove correct, she envisages training many local stakeholders and ecotourism communities in coral restoration, in a bid to make good the damage wrought by human actions.
The length of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef
Coral species identified by Camp that naturally live under extreme conditions
- Perpetual planet
Heroes of the Oceans
Discover Emma Camp in the BBC documentary Heroes of the OceansWatch the video