Coral Reef Research

Videographer Brandon Martin accompanied Rice Earth Science Professor and graduate students to Belize’s coast to study coral reef health.

Videographer Brandon Martin accompanied Rice Earth Science Professor André Droxler and graduate students to Belize's coast to study coral reef health. The field trip was a part of a graduate level seminar on carbonates and climate change, and students spent the better part of each day gathering observations in the water, presenting their findings and attending lectures. For Martin, "This was a lot of work for me and a lot of learning for the students," he said.

We followed up with Droxler, one of Rice's most intrepid researchers, to learn more about coral reef health.

Why are reefs indicators of climate change?
Coral reefs are biogenic constructions made by a complex and highly diverse assemblage of fauna and flora, therefore need to be considered as a living organism. Often, coral reefs are referred to as the "canary in the coal mine" for oceans. Because they are highly sensitive to slight modifications of temperatures, salinity and nutrient concentration, their global decay is an imminent warning. In other words, reefs show what can be expected to happen for the Earth's overall environment as a response to global warming and climate change induced by burning fossil fuels and related CO2 emissions. Also, reefs a uniquely reliable ocean archive for past climate change and sea level rise."

How healthy are these reefs?
The health of coral reefs has globally deteriorated in the past decades. Recently in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, things have gone from bad to worse. 

What’s affecting their health?
A combination of local and global stresses are affecting coral reefs. On a local scale, overfishing, reef mining, nutrient and turbidity increases and diseases are stressors. On a more global scale, bleaching and calcification lowering, as a direct response to the atmospheric CO2 steady increase, induce warming and acidification of the upper part of the tropical oceans. 

What are the implications of coral reefs' dying?
Coral reefs are considered to be as indispensable for the wellbeing of the seas as the rain forests are for the Earth's complex environmental system. Although coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, they are the life support of 25 percent of all known marine species, more then one million species of plants and animals.

What can humans do about it?
Decrease the local and global stresses, in particular. As a priority, dramatically decrease the burning of carbon-based fossil fuel in transforming our society energy demand using alternative renewable energies instead. Protecting large parts of the tropical oceans as safe heavens for healthy coral reefs is also a main priority.