Hu(g)e worries

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Oceans
Hu(g)e worries Seaphotoart
23 Jul
2016
Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This month, Marco Magrini looks at coral bleaching

As weird as it may appear, pink snow is nothing new. The Times wrote about its discovery in 1818, after Captain John Ross brought back a sample from Greenland. ‘It is suggested that the colour is derived from the soil,’ wrote the paper, only to discover later that it was due to cold-loving, microscopic algae that contained a red pigment.

While pinkish snow is not directly caused by climate change, it does, as a paper in Nature Communications argues, have the power to exacerbate its nasty effects on the Arctic. ‘Melting is one major driver for snow algal growth,’ the study says. ‘Extreme melt events like that in 2012, when 97 per cent of the entire Greenland ice sheet was affected by surface melting, are likely to re-occur with increasing frequency in the near future as a consequence of global warming. Such extreme melting events are likely to even further intensify the effect of snow algae on surface albedo.’ The smaller the albedo (the measure of a surface’s reflectivity), the more heat is absorbed by glaciers, thus accelerating melting rates.

It’s not only that corals lose their enchanting colour, they are suddenly at risk of starvation and illness

Unfortunately, we have another huge problem with white and pinkish hues. The planet’s coral reefs are bleaching for an unprecedented third year in a row, warns the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. In April, about 93 per cent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was discoloured, while the Maldives’ underwater paradise is presently devastated by one of the biggest reef bleaching events in history. Unlike pink snow, whitish corals are caused by a warming climate.

Corals rely on the symbiotic relationship they share with the tiny algae that inhabit their tissue, providing them with food as well as that typical red tinge. The trouble is, warm ocean temperatures and pollutants make the algae flee their homes. It’s not only that corals lose their enchanting colour, they are suddenly at risk of starvation and illness. The very role they play in providing food and shelter for many species of fish and crustaceans is in jeopardy.

Australian researchers have identified genes in algae that could allow corals to survive higher temperatures. It’s a short-term trick that could buy us some time. After all, pink snow and white coral bring the same message – that there is yet another case for pushing forward the more well-publicised solutions to our hu(g)e climatic troubles.

This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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