Many scientists and marine biologists are quite worried about the state of coral reefs around the globe. They have been experiencing “bleaching” (a process which involves the slow starvation, stagnation, and eventual death of coral reefs) and are dying out at alarming rates. This has huge implications for not just the organisms that rely on the coral reefs in the ocean, but also on us humans.
However, in one region of the world, the coral reefs are doing surprisingly well. In the Turks and Caicos islands, it has been reported that the coral reefs have been relatively untouched by the bleaching events that have been spreading around the world. Even more surprising is the news that even the ones that have been affected have recovered very well.
The problem that many coral reefs around the world stems from multiple sources. Pollution, introduced species, over-fishing, and over-tourism have all contributed to the issues, but the warming temperatures of the oceans have also caused great harm to the coral reefs. When a coral overheats, it lets go of the symbiotic photosynthetic algea that helps them survive (and gives them food as well as their beautiful colors). When this happens, they turn white, essentially being “bleached” of color and life. While they can survive bleaching, many have not been surviving.
Since the 1970’s, about 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean have died out. The worst of the bleaching events took place during 2014-2017, and affected coral reefs around the globe.
An organization created by citizens in the British Overseas Dependency of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2012 has taken steps to help out. Divers obsevered over 100 reef sites off the South Caicos Island. Then, Abby Knipp, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scanned the data and found surprising results.
Knipp shared: “Boulder-type corals on the Turks and Caicos Islands demonstrated no significant bleaching as a result of the peak thermal stress in late 2015. Plate-type corals did suffer bleaching, but they quickly rebounded. Their pigmentation levels were back to normal within months of the anomalously high thermal stress.”
Two years later, when the same boulder corals were observed, they were even more pigmented, which meant their health was increased. There are theories that hurricanes Irma and Maria helped, as they resulted in much less tourism and thus decreased damage to the surrounding ecosystems.
Experts are continuing to observe the phenomenon to see if there is anything going on that can help save other reefs.