Diving Into Our Climate Future

Blog written for Years of Living Dangerously

For the last two years our team has been following an unprecedented global climate change catastrophe. It is an event that has killed up to 20% of the world’s corals as well as a staggering amount of marine life that directly depended on them. It is the third global coral bleaching event.

As it’s name suggests, it is not a completely new phenomenon, there have been two other (much shorter) events in 1998 and 2010, however these last two events went largely unnoticed by the world’s media. They happened in the ocean, out of sight and out of mind.

We were determined to make this current global bleaching event different. This time we were more prepared. There was the satellite technology to accurately predict and track the die-off and also the technology to record and reveal it to the world with our specially developed 360-degree cameras. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years, as featured in the recent episode of the Years of Living Dangerously. We were there when it started in late 2014 and we have been the only team chasing it around the world as part of project called the XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

Explaining the coral bleaching can get a little complicated, but put simply, the ocean has warmed to such a degree, that corals can no longer cope with normal spikes in temperature during especially hot years. As a result vast areas of corals lose their colour and their flesh turns clear exposing their white skeletons underneath (a process known as bleaching). If the heat doesn’t subside or the impact is too intense the corals can die on mass — 22% of corals on the Great Barrier Reef did just that this year.

It’s not really surprising that we are seeing these kinds of impacts underwater — 93% of climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean — it’s undoubtedly the front line of the issue. The ocean is soaking up a staggering amount of energy. If that heat had been absorbed by the first 10 km of the atmosphere, daily temperatures would be 36 degrees Centigrade hotter (on average) today. No wonder this heat is killing coral reefs, kelp forests, even mangroves on mass.

Diving into the ocean is like diving into the future, for the ocean is a giant heat sink that will continue to heat the atmosphere for decades to come, even if we prevent further carbon emissions. It is only a matter of time before we see similar ecosystem collapses on land. The longer we take to resolve the issue, the worse these collapses will become.

The ocean is simply delaying the impacts of climate change on land and it’s giving us a dangerously false impression of the issue. To see the issue clearly we need to put our heads underwater (not in the sand where they are currently mostly buried). That’s why we do what we do at The Ocean Agency, revealing the oceans for all to see — what’s happening there can no longer remain out of sight and out of mind.

Virtual reality was made for ocean education

Last month we headed to Boulder, Colorado to take fourth-grade students virtual diving for the first time. Using Google Cardboards and Google Expeditions, students swam next to manta rays, snorkelled healthy coral reefs, went cage diving with sharks, and witnessed the effects of climate change resulting in coral bleaching. Student reactions were nothing less than ecstatic with plenty of “ooh’s and ah’s” and shrills of excitement whenever they turned their head in the 360-degree virtual dive. Their responses were contagious.

Inspiring the next generation of ocean stewards needs to begin in the classroom. We need to trigger the same curiosity and appetite for discovery that has existed in ocean exploration for decades.  However all too often, our oceans are left out of curriculum and outside of the classroom. The fundamental importance of the ocean to all life on Earth and the importance of protecting it, is a vital lesson that’s rarely learnt.

In recent years, technology has allowed subjects to come alive and virtual reality is perhaps the best example of this. As it becomes more easily accessible and schools become more and more tech savvy, teachers are able to go beyond the traditional lecture. They can take their students back in time and into the future, around the world - both into space and into the ocean.

Virtual reality enhances ocean education more than almost any other subject. It gives students a glimpse of an underwater world that they may otherwise never get to experience. It quite literally provides a fully immersive encounter with a foreign environment. Through this, rather than simply viewing information in photographs, it facilitates observation and encourages students to make their own conclusions – a fundamental skill in learning.

Developing a virtual reality school education program has been a priority for The Ocean Agency. Fortunately we found the perfect partner to pilot our education initiative in the land-locked education non-profit, Teens4Oceans – based in Boulder, Colorado. Led by scientists, educators, and students, Teens4Oceans provides local youth with the tools and resources to become the next generation of ocean stewards we so desperately need. Now, thanks to the collaboration, virtual reality is at the core of their program as they travel from school to school in their specially converted bus. We hope this is just the start of many such collaborations.

The unfortunate truth is, most people will never see the ocean through a mask and snorkel. Virtual reality is next best thing – we want to bring the same thrill we feel as divers to the world. We plan to continue to use the 600,000 virtual reality images of the ocean we’ve already collected to build education resources - resources that are easily adoptable so that schools can effortlessly integrate ocean education into the classroom. And by doing so, the next generation will further understand the need to study and protect our oceans for all of our futures.

Nature's most beautiful death

In October 2014 we started responding to the 3rd Global Coral Beaching Event as part of the XL Catlin Seaview Survey. In fact we’ve been the only team recording and revealing its impact on reefs on a global basis using our specially designed 360-degree cameras. 

We never imagined we’d still be responding to this event over two years later. This has been the worst and longest bleaching event in history.

Our latest mission was to Okinawa in Japan (our 10th location). We're now releasing that imagery as well as imagery showing the spectacular bleaching in New Caledonia earlier this year. 

The corals in Okinawa photographed by the XL Catlin Seaview Survey - Sept 2016 

The corals in Okinawa photographed by the XL Catlin Seaview Survey - Sept 2016 

In both locations the corals weren't just turning white, many were fluorescing in incredibly bright colours - a sight that has been rarely photographed. 

Some corals 'glow' like this during the bleaching process due to natural sunscreen chemicals they produce to protect themselves from the suns rays. The chemicals colour their otherwise clear flesh tissue. They appear to glow due to their exposed white skeletons underneath this coloured tissue that trap and reflect the light. It is truly one of nature's most stunning yet tragic events.

If ever there was a wake up call to the threat of climate change, this is it. We are seeing an entire ecosystem in a rapid state of collapse (the most bio-diverse ecosystem on the planet). It is a dire warning we can't afford to ignore.

The miraculous tale of the whale

Last week, I really needed to hear some good news about the ocean, a story that would cheer me up, a story about nature bouncing back from catastrophe.

I had just returned from a gathering of the world’s best coral reef scientists in Hawaii where shocking facts were confirmed that I’d been hearing for a while now – climate change is going to wipe out most coral reefs. We are committed to about 25 years of continued ocean warming due to greenhouse gas emissions already in the system. This will take us beyond their maximum temperature tolerance. The global bleaching event, which has just killed 22% of Great Barrier Reef this year, is really just a taste of what’s to come.

Coral reefs are our planets most diverse ecosystem with up to a million species. They are both the nurseries of our global fish stocks and one of our best natural medicine cabinets, full of future cures. The fact that we are committed to virtually losing them, certainly ranks as a catastrophe. Quite frankly the situation is depressing, which is why I needed a good news story so badly.   

Humpback Whale © Jayne Jenkins

Like most people, I already knew a bit about Humpback Whales - I was aware we had nearly wiped them out. We had hunted them down until they were close to extinction. I also knew that, since we stopped commercial whaling, their numbers had recovered reasonably well. However I had no idea to what degree. What I found out surprised me.

By 1966 we had hunted Humpback Whales down to their last 4% (compared to their pre whaling population). Just 5,000 individuals survived. If we’d killed any more, their scarcity and limited genetic pool would have made any recovery increasing unlikely. But we didn’t. Instead we stopped killing them just in time. We stabilised the system, by removing hunting, and we allowed nature to do what it does best. Flourish.

I was expecting Humpback Whale numbers to be up to 20 or 30% from their original numbers. However their recovery has been far more impressive than I expected. There are now around 80,000 individuals (65% of their original numbers) and their numbers are still improving at about 8% per year. That’s phenomenal recovery.

Understanding nature’s ability to recover so strongly, gives me hope for coral reefs. There is no reason to think an ecosystem, like coral reefs, can’t bounce back in the same way.

Like we did with Humpback Whales we will take them to the brink - less than 10% are likely to survive the committed warming already in the system and that’s just the global issue. There are increasing threats from over fishing and pollutions on a local level too.

However we have time to halt the warming and protect the surviving reefs on a local scale from other threats - to stabilise the system and stop the decline. If we do this in time nature can go to work. By the end of this century we could be seeing a similar recovery to the miraculous recovery of Humpback Whales. It’s a vision for the future that makes me want to double our efforts to protect coral reefs. 

The simple fact is we have no choice but to stabilise global warming to under 2 degrees C (above pre industrial temperatures), the science is clear on this. The consequences would be too catastrophic for humanity if we don’t. It is a massive task to achieve this but action is finally ramping up and every government knows we have no other option.

The good news is, by saving ourselves; we’ll still have the potential to save coral reefs. By stabilising the global temperature under a 2 degrees C rise, nature will go to work, creating not just new reefs but reefs more resilient than ever. 

A deeply disturbing dive

Some of the media reports in recent weeks have overstated the facts about the bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – the truth is the southern part of the reef was virtually unaffected. However, even the most conservative estimates of the impact in the north still rank the bleaching as one of the worst environmental disasters in Australian history. We were there to see it first hand and it was the most disturbing sight we have ever seen.

Bill and Shannon Joy made the trip to the remote far north possible - allowing us to use their amazing yacht Ethereal as our research boat. We started the main mission at Lizard Island, which we'd previously visited at the height of the bleaching five weeks earlier and headed north from there. On the last trip the reef at Lizard Island was in the sad but hauntingly beautiful phase - the corals had lost their colour and their skeletons, visible through their clear flesh, were glowing white.

           New imagery available for media on www.globalcoralbleaching.org

           New imagery available for media on www.globalcoralbleaching.org

We were expecting to see a similar but faded sight when we returned, but when we jumped in to revisit the sites we knew so well from the previous trip, we were shocked by the transformation. The white hard corals had turned brown - they were dead and covered in algae. They looked like they'd been dead for years. The soft corals were even more shocking. They were in a state of decomposition and were literally dripping off the rocks. It was a deeply disturbing sight. It was followed by a deeply disturbing smell as soon as we got out of the water. We smelt of the rotting flesh of animals. It was an experience we will never forget.  

We hope we never have to witness anything like it again. But we know we will. The ocean is committed to continued warming for at least the next two decades due to carbon emissions already in the system. Dangerous climate change is here and it's now or never for protection of coral reefs. 

Global Bleaching Event hits hard in the Indian Ocean

The peak of the coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef is over. An estimated 35% of all the corals in the northern and central sections have died - it was one of the worst environmental disasters in Australian history. Now all we can do is help make sure the reef is given the best chance to recover (as well as it can) before the next bleaching event inevitably hits. 

However the bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef was not the end of the 3rd Global Bleaching Event. That keeps rolling on from region to region. It is currently hitting the Indian Ocean as revealed in the latest imagery released.

"The bleaching we just witnessed in the Maldives was truly haunting," said Richard Vevers, founder of The Ocean Agency. "It's rare to see reefs bleach quite so spectacularly. These were healthy reefs in crystal clear water at the height of an intense bleaching event. The flesh of the corals had turned clear and we were seeing the skeletons of the animals glowing white for as far as the eye could see - it was a beautiful, yet deeply disturbing sight."

"We've been following this 3rd Global Bleaching Event since the start nearly two years ago and just when you think you've seen the saddest sight you'll ever see, you see something even worse."  

The Ocean Agency in partnership with XL Catlin (the global insurance and reinsurance company), Google and scientists at The University of Queensland and NOAA have been responding to the bleaching event since it started in late 2014.  Using specially developed cameras, they are the only ones set up to chase the event, dispatching teams on a global basis to visually record it. The unique 360-degree imagery they have produced is revealing the true scale of a global bleaching event to the world. 

“The current global bleaching event is already lasted longer than any previous bleaching event and is likely to last until at least the end of the year." stated Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA Coral Reef Watch. 

The ocean absorbs 93% of climate change heat. Global Bleaching Events are a new phenomenon caused by this additional heat (there have only been three in recorded history - all within the last 20 years). Both the frequency and severity of these events are predicted to increase for at least the next two decades due to committed global warming already in the Earth's system. 

Click on the link for more information.

Media contacts for quotes:

Richard Vevers: +61 411 505 477 (richard@theoceanagency.org)

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg: (oveh@uq.edu.au)

Mark Eakin (Coordinator of NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch Program): +1 (301) 683-3320 (mark.eakin@noaa.gov)