Stephen Palumbi Says ‘Super Reefs’ Could Help Save Dying Coral

Stephen Palumbi, and scientist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, is on the hunt for what he calls “super reefs.” These are regions of the ocean where unusual sets of coral occur. When the ocean warms, coral species become stressed. This leads to a phenomenon called coral bleaching, where these invertebrates begin to expel the algae communities that typically live harmoniously within them. As a result, the corals lose their brilliant hues and turn white.

But in “super reefs,” the coral appears to have evolved to be heat-resistant and remain home to lush aquatic ecosystems. “They’re diverse, they’re functional, they have a wide variety of corals and fish species everywhere,” Palumbi said at the Re:WIRED Green conference in San Francisco earlier this week.

Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images

The goal is to use the lessons from those reefs to protect and restore others who are less fortunate. Palumbi and his collaborators, who mainly work on the island of Palau in the Pacific Ocean, have studied unusually warm stretches of ocean to understand why some supercoral ecosystems thrive. The secret is in their genes. A reef’s resilience, he says, “is in the diversity of species and the genetic diversity of the individuals that are there.” So far, his team has surveyed 40 reefs and tested 400 different corals, identifying dozens of them with heat-resistant constitutions.

Some of those coral species are now grown in nurseries to re-establish where reefs have been lost, providing a foundation to rebuild these once vibrant and complex ecosystems. The first attempts, he says, have been successful. The next challenge is scaling up the technology in oceans around the world.