Coral around the world is dying, except one reef where it's flourishing

Coral around the world is dying, except one reef where it's flourishing

The Red Sea could be the last place in the world where coral reefs will survive.

Unlike corals in the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere, the corals in the northern part of the Red Sea are not bleaching and dying when the sea temperature rises.

Instead, they are thriving.

Bleaching, the phenomenon caused by global warming, has been one of the main reasons half of the world's coral reefs have died in the past three decades.

But in the northern Gulf of Aqaba, where Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia share the coast, the corals are bountiful, colourful and healthy despite rising carbon dioxide and warming seas.

"We're seeing corals that are resilient to five, six degrees — even more degrees above summer maximum," Professor Maoz Fine, from Israel's Bar Ilan University, said.

"This is amazing."

Australian scientists are working with counterparts in Israel and Jordan to find out why the coral is doing so well.

They also want to know whether the answer could help save the beleaguered coral species in the Great Barrier Reef.

"We're starting to get some nice insights into what makes coral reefs tick and most importantly, how we avoid killing them as we are in many places," Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, professor of Marine Science at the University of Queensland said.

"We can't make coral adapt, but we can improve its ability to weather the storm of rising sea temperatures."

Scientists study resilient coral for clues

At the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, Israeli researchers have created a "Red Sea simulator", which tests the response of local coral species to elevated carbon dioxide levels and high temperatures.

They suspect the reason these species are more resilient is because they spread to the area from further south, where the ocean is much hotter, and were genetically preconditioned to withstand higher sea temperatures.

"Understanding the processes that have led to high resilience here will be interesting elsewhere," Professor Fine said.

"Eventually we will have the technology to maybe modify and assist corals to be more resilient, so this is important to know."

That does not mean scientists could repopulate the dead parts of the Great Barrier Reef with Red Sea coral.

"We're not suggesting that corals from the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea could be translocated and reseeded in the Great Barrier Reef," Professor Fine said.

"We're talking about hundreds of species, we're talking about a very different environment and of course the vast size of the Great Barrier Reef suggests that it's not very practical or feasible to reseed corals."

Futuristic city could imperil reef

While rising temperatures might not be an immediate threat, there are plenty of others that could destroy the Gulf of Aqaba's special coral reefs.

Scientists are concerned about increasing coastal urban development, fish farming, tourism and desalination, all of which cause pollution that harms reefs.

Saudi Arabia has begun building Neom, a futuristic $725 billion city on the shores of the Red Sea.

It will reportedly feature glow-in-the-dark sand, an artificial moon and the use of chemical "cloud seeding" to create higher rainfall.

Managing the impacts of development and other threats requires collaboration between the countries which share the coastline, something difficult to achieve in this politically tense region.

But earlier this year, countries around the Red Sea joined a transnational research centre, coordinated by a Swiss university, to collaborate on projects that could lead to greater understanding of the risks and better environmental protection.

In Jordan, where scientists work with their Israeli counterparts across the border, researchers are optimistic that the need to protect the reefs will transcend political differences.

"It is for their benefit because if you care for corals and the ecosystem you can sustain tourism and fishing and so many sectors, in all countries," said Dr Ali al-Sawalmih, the head of Jordan's Marine Science Station.

"Maybe coral can unify us all."