Skip to main content
Move the World.

In the face of a changing climate, coral reefs are dying all over the world. Coral reefs make up the foundation of ocean life, but 50% of them have been lost in the past three decades. Are coral reefs in danger of disappearing forever? A group of innovative researchers and divers is racing against the clock to prove otherwise.

Coral are fascinating underwater creatures that are part animal, mineral, and plant all at the same time. They thrive in the tropics but can grow virtually anywhere in the ocean, including its deepest depths, as long as there's a hard surface for them to attach to.

Why are Coral Reefs Dying

Source: Alexander Neufeld, Coral Restoration Foundation

New coral attaches itself to skeletons of other, older coral, which eventually provides the underlying structure of the ocean's richest ecosystem. 

What is a Coral Reef? 

A reef is a collection of coral colonies, with the largest reef existing off the coast of Australia. The importance of coral reefs cannot be overstated. Often referred to as "the rainforests of the ocean," these diverse ecosystems provide essential nutrients and shelter to over 4,000 species of fish and countless other marine animals, from crabs to jellyfish.

This extreme diversity has been a key player in the development of new medicines and even possible cures for cancer, arthritis, and other diseases. In addition, coral reefs act as a barrier between the waves and our coastlines, which means they protect our shores from tropical storms and erosion.

Coral reefs are a natural barrier, protecting our shores from tropical storms and erosion.

Conversations about the importance of coral reefs often include their contribution to the global economy. The extinction of coral would have a drastic impact on the tourism industry, as coral reefs provide a unique place for divers and snorkelers to explore. To put this into perspective, the Great Barrier Reef generates over a billion dollars every year in Australia.

Another concerning implication of coral reefs dying is the effect that it would have on the fishing industry. It's estimated that over a billion people depend on coral reefs as a source of food, many of them in developing countries. In total, the goods and services that reefs provide tally up to about $375 billion annually

Why Are Coral Reefs Dying?

The biggest contributor to coral reefs dying is higher water temperatures, and in order to understand exactly why, it's necessary to look at the algae they live with.

Rising water temperatures cause coral to “spit out” the algae they normally live off of.

Coral has a symbiotic relationship with algae: coral provides a home and algae provides some of the coral's food through photosynthesis. However, rising water temperatures stress coral and cause them to essentially spit out the algae they normally live off of.

Without their main source of food, the coral turns white (also known as “coral bleaching”) and is at risk of dying from starvation. Because coral reefs could be in danger of disappearing for good, research labs all over the world are trying to come up with the best ways to save them from the effects of climate change.

The importance of coral reefs

Source: Zach Ransom, Coral Restoration Foundation

And the labs are pulling out every trick in the book, including gene editing, selective breeding, and exposure therapy. One particular method includes the creation of super-coral, if you will, where coral are genetically modified to be more resilient to heat. 

On the Frontlines of Coral Restoration

All of this research will eventually have to make its way into the wild. Enter the Coral Restoration Foundation, the Florida-based group that is diving into these challenges head first. The CRF is helping restore these vital ecosystems and they've increased their efforts tenfold in the last three years.

The labs are pulling out every trick in the book, including gene editing to create super-coral.

The Coral Restoration Foundation is on the frontlines of efforts to save coral reefs, particularly in the Florida Keys. The team came together in 2007 in response to the widespread loss of coral in the Florida Reef Tract, the third largest barrier reef in the world.

They've essentially built a massive nursery for coral, where they grow coral on over 400 "trees" suspended in the water. The trees, made of PVC pipes and fiberglass, help accelerate the growth rate of coral two to four times faster than they'd grow in a reef, depending on the species.

Why are coral reefs dying

Source: Alexander Neufeld, Coral Restoration Foundation

To start the process, a parent colony is fragmented using large cutting pliers. If you break a coral apart and attach its parts to a hard surface, it will keep on growing. Next, the team attaches these fragments to the underwater trees until the coral are mature enough to plant in reef sites. 

A Race Against the Clock

Planting coral is not a new initiative, but planting on a large enough scale that's necessary to save coral reefs is unprecedented. This project is a massive undertaking and scaling the work has created new challenges, such as how to monitor the growth and success of restoration efforts.

Today, over 100,000 corals have been planted.

To meet this need, the CRF developed a game-changing photomosaic technique that allows divers to quickly scan over an area with an elaborate photography rig. They're then able to create 3D models of their outplantings with the data and track them over time.

Today, over 100,000 corals have been outplanted across more than 20 restoration sites throughout the Florida Keys Reef Tract. The last few years have signified a time of massive growth for the Coral Restoration Foundation, shedding a ray of hope on the state of coral reefs, and this is only the beginning.

For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.

Subscribe

Up Next

Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
Watch Now
Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
18 billion pounds of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year. This microbrewery created biodegradable six pack rings to help stem the tide.
Watch Now

Saltwater Brewery was a regular microbrewery that made great craft beer - packaged with the usual plastic six pack rings. As fishermen who saw firsthand the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, though, they felt they needed to make a change to help marine animals. They came up with the idea to create edible six pack rings made of biodegradable materials left over from the brewing process. Now, they’ve created a new...

Innovation
Hacking Surfboard Fins to Fight Climate Change
Hacking Surfboard Fins to Fight Climate Change
Watch Now
Innovation
Hacking Surfboard Fins to Fight Climate Change
How can a surfboard modification help save the oceans?
Watch Now

He doesn’t surf, he doesn’t code, but he’s hacking surfboard fins to combat climate change and it’s working. Meet Andy Stern, citizen scientist and founder of Smartfin. He's brought together surfers and oceanographers to create a smart surfboard fin that's collecting vital data to track and fight climate change. As far as oceans go, the environmental crisis doesn't just affect the icebergs - it affects all of us. Surfers...

Democracy
You Can Now Track Your Mail-In Ballot Like an Amazon Package
Ballot Tracking
Democracy
You Can Now Track Your Mail-In Ballot Like an Amazon Package
At least 46 states now offer free ballot tracking, letting voters follow their mail-in ballots from the printer to the election office.

At least 46 states now offer free ballot tracking, letting voters follow their mail-in ballots from the printer to the election office.

Artificial Intelligence
Minecraft’s Urban Planning AI Could Help Design Future Cities
urban planning
Artificial Intelligence
Minecraft’s Urban Planning AI Could Help Design Future Cities
AIs design entire settlements in an annual Minecraft competition that could reveal uses for the tech in real-world urban planning.

AIs design entire settlements in an annual Minecraft competition that could reveal uses for the tech in real-world urban planning.

Healthcare
Urine Test Could Replace Malignant Melanoma Biopsies
Malignant Melanoma
Healthcare
Urine Test Could Replace Malignant Melanoma Biopsies
Doctors can look to the levels of certain fluorescent molecules in the urine of malignant melanoma patients to track the progression of their skin cancer.

Doctors can look to the levels of certain fluorescent molecules in the urine of malignant melanoma patients to track the progression of their skin cancer.

Public Health
What Is Protecting Kids Against the Coronavirus?
children coronavirus
Public Health
What Is Protecting Kids Against the Coronavirus?
Something is protecting kids against the coronavirus, and researchers want to figure out what it is so they can use it to develop a treatment.

Something is protecting kids against the coronavirus, and researchers want to figure out what it is so they can use it to develop a treatment.

Future of Fertility
For Childhood Cancer Survivors, Adult Fertility Isn’t a Given
For Childhood Cancer Survivors, Adult Fertility Isn’t a Given
Future of Fertility
For Childhood Cancer Survivors, Adult Fertility Isn’t a Given
Experimental procedures offer beta solutions for girls, and more time to figure it out for boys.
By Julia Sklar

Experimental procedures offer beta solutions for girls, and more time to figure it out for boys.

Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Watch Now
Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Touch is a sensation that connects us all. This scientist created electronic skin that lets people with prosthetic limbs feel.
Watch Now

For amputees, the sensation of a ‘phantom limb’ can be a terrible or disorienting experience -- feeling a hand, arm or leg that isn’t there anymore. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have recognized that these sensations are a clue, and they’re using it to restore the sense of touch.

The New Space Race
Can This Startup Give Everyone Access to the Moon?
Can This Startup Give Everyone Access to the Moon?
The New Space Race
Can This Startup Give Everyone Access to the Moon?
With advanced navigational technology, Astrobotic wants to provide a routine, affordable, and accurate delivery...
By Mike Riggs

With advanced navigational technology, Astrobotic wants to provide a routine, affordable, and accurate delivery service to the moon.