Coral bleaching is happening five times more frequently than it did forty years ago. Its increasing occurrence is a result of global warming which leads to marine heat waves – periods of higher ocean water temperatures. Heat stress on living coral animals causes them to expel the algae that live symbiotically within the coral structure. As the algae is expelled, the coral fades in color looking like it is bleached. Without its algae partner, the coral eventually dies.
Given the increasing occurrence of marine heat waves, scientists are seeking novel ways to decrease heat stress in corals. A new study by the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science is investigating the use of artificial upwelling – the application of cooler, deep water – as a way to mitigate thermal stress on corals.
Upwelling is a natural process in the ocean in which winds push surface water away from a region – for example, a coastline – which then allows the uplift of deeper, colder waters to the surface. Because such deeper waters are typically rich in nutrients, upwelling is important for supporting many of the world’s important commercial fisheries. For this reason, artificial upwelling has sometimes been used to increase fish stocks in certain locations.
The new work placed coral colonies in aquaria in Bermuda and tested the effects of varying amounts and temperatures of deep cold-water pulses upon corals subjected to thermal stress. The results showed that even short intrusions of cooler deep water (less than two hours per day) can mitigate thermal stress in corals. The next steps are to find suitable parameters for artificial upwelling that maximize the benefits while minimizing potential harmful side effects on the corals and the ecosystems they support.
Photo, posted February 24, 2008, courtesy of Roderick Eime via Flickr.