Coral ‘cryobank’ saves reef species

Should the Great Barrier Reef perish as a result of rising ocean temperatures and acidity levels, it appears scientists will have, at least, a small consolation prize.

The Zoological Society of London is planning the world’s first coral “cryobank”, which would preserve hundreds of samples of each species in liquid nitrogen.

Samples taken from the Great Barrier Reef would be included in the radical preservation effort, although none has so far been removed for this purpose.

For some marine scientists, however, the concept is deeply flawed since it fails to tackle the root of the problem — the feared obliteration of coral reefs by mid-century.

Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said he supported the effort but warned it was no consolation for the eradication of reefs.

Creating coral-style aquariums, similar to the zoos of today, or preserving the genetic make-up of coral samples to “resurrect” reef systems in the future, were not meaningful options, according to Dr Veron.

“These are not solutions,” he said. “Because Australia is home to the biggest coral reef in the world, it should concentrate all its efforts into helping the Great Barrier Reef survive.

“Personally, I feel it’s no compensation to know that the genetic information of corals is kept in machines.”

Dr Veron said reefs across the globe would be wiped out by century’s end if current trends continued.

“By mid-century, all shallow-water corals will have been wiped out by mass bleaching and by mid-century ocean acidification will be slowing or stopping the growth of corals on the Great Barrier Reef. Reef growth will have ceased.”

As for the Great Barrier Reef — said to be more biodiverse than all of Europe — Dr Veron warned it would be “in tatters’ by 2030.

“Young children today will see the Great Barrier Reef come to an end,” he said.

The problem arises because most of the carbon in the atmosphere is taken up by the oceans where it is dissolved, forming carbonic acid.

This raises acidity levels and attacks the carbonate platform on which reefs are built, preventing corals from forming skeletons.

“Most carbon in the atmosphere is taken up by the oceans. A coral reef is a carbonate platform. They are made of carbonates and carbon dioxide directly attacks carbonates,” Dr Veron said.

He said the solution to the problem was to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“It’s easy to stop. Stop producing carbon dioxide. We’ve got to cut the greenhouse emissions and that is what the Copenhagen meeting is all about,” Dr Veron said.

Joe Kelly, The Australian, 26 October 2009. Article.

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