The world’s coral reefs are in danger. Climate change has dramatically damaged their ecosystems, leading to the endangerment and even death of thousands of kilometers of the once-beautiful reef.

As we lose more and more coral, the threat to our world becomes greater and more significant in terms of natural disasters, food shortage, economic difficulty, and marine wildlife. Unfortunately, as coral reefs continue to face stronger threats, these problems might worsen. But this might all change, all thanks to a happy accident discovered by a marine researcher.

A Scientist’s Mistake In A Lab Can Make Coral Grow 40 Times Faster

The Mistake That Can Make Coral Grow 40x Faster

Dr. David Vaughan, who works at Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory, has managed to find a way to allow coral to grow at a much faster rate than its natural growth process – and it’s all thanks to an unwitting mistake.

The accident was a simple one. Dr. Vaughan had been attempting to detach a piece of coral from a tank base, where it had become stubbornly stuck. He pulled too hard, and the coral fractured into multiple parts.

But then something incredible happened. In just three weeks, the pieces had grown significantly, matching their whole original size. For reference, the original coral had taken three years to reach that size.

The potential for this discovery is cause for positive thinking. Most large coral requires between 25 to 75 years to hit their age of sexual maturity. But Dr. Vaughan has found that, only by breaking up or “microfragmenting” these pieces of coral, he can reduce that timespan to just three years.

Researchers and conservationists continue to strive for new results and findings. At best, scientists hope that this can become the start of a massive solution for the declining coral reef populations, but if not, it will at least buy them additional time to understand better how to save them. So far, all species of Florida Keys’ coral have been compatible with this method of regrowth.

Threats To The World’s Coral 

The Endangered Species Act currently lists 25 species of coral as “protected.” The government lists 22 of them as threatened and three as endangered. And it’s easy to see why. For example, 27% of live coral cover across the world disappeared over the past 30 years. Here are some of the threats faced by the world’s coral:

1.    Mass Bleaching

Mass bleaching is an event where raised levels of surface temperatures cause excess heat stress on coral reefs, causing them to become “bleached”; that is, to lose their photosynthetic algae and, therefore, their color and survivability.

Some facts and statistics on mass bleaching are as follows:

  • The first mass bleaching occurred in the Great Barrier Reef and resulted in the death of 29% of its shallow-water corals.
  • The second mass bleaching occurred in the western region of the Indian Ocean and resulted in 50% of Seychelles’ corals dying, while 69-99% were bleached.
  • The third mass bleaching event occurred across the world and affected 75% of the world’s coral reefs, with 30% suffering from toxic stress; this was the most destructive bleaching event ever positively recorded.

Because bleaching causes corals to dispel their algae and other animals living on them, if water temperatures do not return to normal, the corals will starve to death.

2.    Fishing Problems

Commercially caught fish have been suffering due to overfishing for many years, and corals are affected by those changing ecosystems. When fishing increases around coral reefs – an attempt to meet food and tourism demands – algae grow at a much faster rate, throwing off the biodiversity and balance of the beach.

Some more destructive fishing methods, such as using cyanide or explosives, begin to break up the reefs, causing severe damage to the coral’s fragile forms. Small business fishers have resorted to using this method to compete with commercial trawlers.

3.    Coastal Development

Developments of towns and cities around the coastal areas can prove dangerous to reefs. Limited space means that many projects opt to reclaim land from bodies of water for construction purposes. This causes the destruction of sensitive habitats in those areas, as well as the following problems:

  • The alteration of the flow of water causes an imbalance when sediment and nutrients are rushed to the reefs
  • Developed areas often dump waste materials into the sea of the coast, even unintentionally
  • The nutrient-richness of reefs forced to accept more freshwater and nutrients leads to an algae bloom, disrupting ecological balance.

4.    Acidification of the Ocean

One of the many effects of climate change is ocean acidification, which occurs when the pH levels of water around the planet drops. This is due to an increased intake of carbon dioxide, specifically of an anthropogenic kind, from the air.

To some degree, oceans can help to manage the effects of climate change because of their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, but that causes the water’s pH to become more and more acidic. This can result in coral reef calcification.

5.    The Aquarium Trade

Many people around the world have a marine aquarium – approximately 2 million of them. And almost all of these aquariums are inhabited by wild species caught and purchased for these aquarium owners.

But in order to collect these fish, some individuals use poor methods of collection, such as cyanide, leading to severe harm to marine life. There is not enough regulation on the global aquarium trade, as fish of all kinds travel to new territories, and industry standards remain low and unwatched.

6.    Unsustainable Tourism

For many countries, tourism is a major source of income. But unregulated tourism becomes unsustainable, leading to damaged coral reefs. This can happen through:

  • Careless or unknowing tourists who interact with reefs roughly
  • Resorts, hotels, and accommodation options that discharge waste material into the coast
  • Uncleaned coastal lines, with rubbish that is blown into the water

7.    Coral Disease

Just like any other species of flora and fauna, coral can face disease, too. Over the past decade, coral disease cases have increased shockingly, most originating from viral, fungal, or bacterial sources. Still, many negative events, both natural and human-caused, increase the susceptibility of corals to disease.

Recent observation indicates that coral disease events occur after an event of coral bleaching, indicating a possible link between them.

8.    Sea Levels

This stems from climate change and is a reason that we need positive environmental change. Sea levels aren’t just rising because of melting ice – they’re rising because the ocean is absorbing a whopping 80% of the world’s rising temperatures, leading to increased ocean temperatures as deep as 3000 meters! This leads to the expansion and rising of sea levels, which damages coral.

9.    Invasive or Predatory Species

The main issue here is in alien species that did not come from the ecosystem in question originally. These species are often moved due to the actions of humans. Some of them multiply very quickly due to a lack of natural predators, completely unhinging the natural balance of the ecosystem.

Another issue lies in predatory species – specifically a starfish known as the Crown of Thorns Starfish, or the COTs. COTs naturally target coral reefs and have very few natural predators. Recent human activity has led to declining numbers of marine creatures that would feed on COTs. This is allowing COTs to grow out of control, wiping out reefs quickly.

10.  Pollution

Without clean water, fragile coral reefs cannot survive. Oil, trash, and other forms of pollution are harming the waters and affecting marine life of all kinds, including coral.

The Importance Of Coral 

1.    Habitat

Approximately 25% of all marine life lives around, on, and within coral reefs. This biodiversity is so impressive that it actually rivals that of tropical rainforests, and this makes it one of the planet’s most important spots for biodiversity and life. Coral reefs are a foundation for many other ecosystems, and they help in the formation of healthy habitats.

2.    Protection

Coral reefs may only take up around 0.2% of the world’s seabed, but they take up most of that space along the coastline; over 150,000 km of coral reefs span over a hundred different nations. But they’re not just there to look pretty! Coral reefs:

  • Reduce the erosion of the coast
  • Reduce damage from water-based natural disasters
  • Absorb the energy from waves (97% of that energy!)
  • Protect ecosystems on land and on see

In fact, without coral reefs, there are certain lands, territories, and countries, that would simply not exist today!

3.    Economy

Coral reefs are a source of income all across the world, and there are millions of people who rely on them to earn an income, stay protected, and put food on the table. Here are some statistics about just how positive coral reefs are for the global and local economy:

  • $9.6 billion is earned through leisure and tourism
  • $9 billion is earned through coastal protection, including $94 million in flood protection
  • $5.7 billion is earned through fisheries
  • $5.5 billion is earned through biodiversity benefits
  • $3.4 billion is the total economic value of all services from American coral reefs
  • $29 billion in earnings across the world is due to coral reefs

This also takes into account:

  • Around 850 million people living within 100 km of a coral reef benefit in some way from them
  • Around 500 million people are reliant on coral reefs to live
  • 30% or more of export earnings in 20 countries are due to coral reefs
  • More than 100 countries benefit from coral reefs for tourism
  • Over 90% of economic development in certain smaller countries and territories depends on the tourism brought by these reefs
  • Reef animals provide food and protein sources
environment and coral reefs
Love learning about saving the environment? Read about Maine’s groundbreaking legislation against styrofoam containers.

Final Thoughts On How A Scientist’s Mistake In The Lab Can Make Coral Grow 40x Faster

The health of our coral reefs is crucial to protection, the economy, livelihood, and wildlife. Scientists working on restoring damaged reefs feel passionate about the effort. Indeed, there’s a lot that is resting on them.

With the microfragmenting method, we now look forward to a brighter future where coral reefs can regenerate at a mere fraction of their typical growth rate. And to think–we owe it all to an unintentional mistake!