3:15 PM MST
Well... I'm back. Back home, back to work. Life on Heron Island was so different that now that it's hard to believe it actually happened. But at the same time, even though I traveled quite literally to the other side of the world, Heron Island doesn't seem that far away. Perhaps it's because when you're stuck in the middle of an airplane at night, you don't really get a sense of going anywhere.
This journey was quite a leap for me. Before Heron Island, I'd never been farther away from home than Yellowstone. Never been out of county. Never seen the ocean. Never done much swimming, or any snorkeling outside of half an hour in a pool (I got cramps). Considering the magnitude of the project, it was a sound success. I didn't get to do everything I wanted to, but I've gained valuable experience and technical expertise.
One of my big reasons for going on this trip was to experiment with marine biology. I enjoy learning about the sea, but would I enjoy working in it? The answer is yes, but as much as I enjoyed snorkeling, I don't feel the call of the ocean. Maybe it's just because I'm two for two with seasickness on large boats, but I think I'd be just as happy working on land as in the ocean, and working on land is quite a bit easier! But I'm glad to have learned to work in the water. I don't know where I'll be going or what I'll be doing when I start my career, and the more skills I have, the better.
Of course, another reason that I wanted to go to Heron is that the reef is at risk and may not be around much longer, and I think I need to talk about that. I've been there, and I've seen things, and I've learned about the things I've seen and things beyond the little bit of reef I visited. The very last assignment for this class is to make a video on threats to the reef, but that's a ways off and will take a lot of work, so I'll talk a bit about it now.
There's a lot of talk that the Great Barrier Reef is dead. Obviously that isn't true, as my photos and video will show (if I can ever find the cable for my camera). Large portions of the reef have been "bleached," which means the tiny animals that make up coral expel the symbiotic algae that produce food for them. This occurs when the reef is under stress. In this case, the root cause is temperature change and increased water pH from climate change. It's only a few degrees warmer and 0.1 pH points more acidic, but that's all it takes.
Bleached coral is not dead, but without the algae it can't get enough food in the nutrient-poor tropical waters. Unless the algae returns, the coral will starve. The only way to reverse coral bleaching is to remove whatever is stressing the coral, but since the stressor in is climate change, we may not be able to do very much. Heron Island has been running a series of experiments for the past several years where they simulate increased temperature, CO2, and combinations of the two to see how coral ecosystems respond to climate change. The study is still ongoing, but so far it's not looking particularly hopeful.
In a double-whammy, climate change is hitting coral (and us) with another problem: rising sea level. Water absorbs sunlight very well, and coral need to live in quite shallow seas in order to get enough sunlight for their algae. Coral are constantly growing upward, but if sea levels rise faster than the coral can grow, they run out of sunlight and die.
Ready for the triple punch? Climate change isn't just bad for coral, it's good for other things: turf algae and crown of thorns sea stars both do well in warmer, more acidic waters. Turf algae is aggressive--if it's not kept in check, it grows out of control and smothers the reef, killing the coral. Crown of thorns sea stars are more direct--they eat coral, and in given the right conditions can experience a population explosion to levels that can threaten the reef.
There are other threats, but you get the point.
So why should we care if the reef goes bye-bye? Yeah it's pretty, but nature is rough. If things aren't strong enough, they die. That's just how nature works.
Well, the death of the coral reefs has ramifications. Reefs provide various services, including serving as hubs of biodiversity and breakwaters. Biodiversity is good: it means there's lots of things we can eat and get medicines from and study. Many open ocean fish that we like to eat live their juvenile lives on reefs. Breakwaters are also good: the ocean works up lots of big, nasty waves, and having barrier reefs between the open ocean and the land provides shelter from things like tropical storms. Without reefs, beachfront property will see bigger and nastier waves and more coastal erosion. We want reefs to stay where they are and keep doing what they're doing, and if they die out then it will create problems.
These threats are not a reason to panic. They are certainly problems, but humans aren't going to go extinct from the disappearance of reefs, or from climate change in general. Climate change is just change, and humans can adapt, though it might be painful. Nature will take it harder because nature's response to change is typically to die, but while we'll lose some ecosystems and it will be a huge mess, life on Earth is in no danger of dying out.
These threats are also not a reason to feel angry or guilty about humanity. The problems we're causing are not because of some special wickedness or stupidity. They're because we're moving forward with no precedent, no idea what's coming around the bend, so of course we make blunders. The behavioral flaws that prevent us from addressing problems with climate change aren't some special blindness on the part of humanity, they're the result of biology. Nature built us to be selfish and short-sighted, to focus our thinking around where and when we are, and on our own genetic relatives to the exclusion of all others.
So how do we address threats to the reef and the world in general when nature built us to be exploitative? The answer is simple, but difficult: Change our nature. Break out of the egocentric focus built into our genetics. Travel. Read. Watch documentaries. Study people you've never met. Study people you disagree with, and look for the special bits of knowledge they have. Collaborate with people who hold different views than you. Vote with your judgement, not with your party.
And have hope in humanity. No species on Earth has ever been able to look at the world and understand it like we do. This gives us power--power to be exploitative and destructive on a scale the planet has never seen before, but also the power to escape the selfish bounds of natural selection and learn to do better. Nobody can learn without making mistakes. Just keep your eyes on what comes after.