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coral

Imaggeo on Mondays: Isolated atoll

Imaggeo on Mondays: Isolated atoll

Covering a total area of 298 km², the idylic natural atolls and reefs of the Maldives stretch across the Indian Ocean. The tropical nation is famous for it’s crystal clear waters and picture perfect white sand beaches, but how did the 26 ring-shaped atolls and over 1000 coral islands form?

Coral reefs commonly form immediately around an island, creating a fringe which projects seawards from the shore. If the island is of volcaninc origin and slowly subsides below sea level, while the coral continues to grow growing outwards and upwards, an atoll is formed. They are usually roughly circular in shape and have a central lagoon. If the coral reef grows high enough, it will emerge from the sea waters and start to form a  tiny island.

“I took this photo while flying over the Maldives, south of Malè, from a small seaplane,” describes Favaro, who took this stunning aerial image of an atoll above the Indian Ocean.

Pictured, goes on to explain Favaro,

“[is] part of the ring-shaped coral reef bounding the atoll. On the right side of the image there is the lagoon and on the left side the open ocean. The coral reef is interrupted twice by ‘Kandu’ (water passages in Dhivehi [the language spoken in the Maldives]), which are the places where water flows in and out of the atoll when the tides changes”.

Two small harbours and antennas suggest the two small islands are occupied by local people, not by a resort or hotels.

“What always strikes me is how they can live so isolated, in a place which doesn’t offer basic resources, such as drinkable water,” says Favaro.

Fresh water is scarce in this archipelago nation. Rainwater harvesting is unreliable; poor rainfall means depleted collection tanks and groundwater tables. The problem is being exacerbated by climate change which is altering the monsoon cycle and rainfall patters over the Indian Ocean. As a result, the country relies heavily on desalination plants (and imported bottled water) to sustain the nation and the 1 million tourists who visit annually.

This animation shows the dynamic process of how a coral atoll forms. Corals (represented in tan and purple) begin to settle and grow around an oceanic island forming a fringing reef. It can take as long as 10,000 years for a fringing reef to form. Over the next 100,000 years, if conditions are favorable, the reef will continue to expand. As the reef expands, the interior island usually begins to subside and the fringing reef turns into a barrier reef. When the island completely subsides beneath the water leaving a ring of growing coral with an open lagoon in its center, it is called an atoll. The process of atoll formation may take as long as 30,000,000 years to occur. Caption and figure credit: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

References and further reading

How Do Coral Reefs Form? An educational resource by NOAA

Amazing atolls of the Maldives – a feature on NASA’s Earth Observatory.

 

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

Geosciences Column: How El Niño triggered Indonesia corals die-off

In the glistening waters of Indonesia, shallow corals – the rain forests of the sea – teem with life.  Or at least they did once. Towards the end of 2015 the corals started to die, leaving a bleak landscape behind. An international team of researchers investigated the causes of the die-off. Their findings, published recently in the EGU’s open access journal, Biogeosciences, are rather surprising.

Globally, corals face tough times. Increasing ocean-water temperatures (driven by a warming climate) are disrupting the symbiotic relationship between corals and the algae that live on (and in) them.

The algae, known as zooxanthellae, provide a food source for corals and give them their colour. Changing water temperatures and/or levels, the presence of contaminants or overexposure to sunlight, put corals under stress, forcing the algae to leave. If that happens, the corals turn white – they become bleached – and are highly susceptible to disease and death.

Triggered by the 2015-2016 El Niño, water temperatures in many coral reef regions across the globe have risen, causing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event in recorded history. Now into its third year, the mass bleaching event is anticipated to cause major coral die-off in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the second consecutive year.

The team of researchers studying the Indonesian corals found that, unlike most corals globally, it’s not rising water temperatures which caused the recent die-off, but rather decreasing sea level.

While conducting a census of coral biodiversity in the Bunaken National Park, located in the northwest tip of Sulawesi (Indonesia), in late February 2016, the researchers noticed widespread occurrences of dead massive corals. Similar surveys, carried out in the springs of 2014 and 2015 revealed the corals to be alive and thriving.

In 2016, all the dying corals were found to have a sharp horizontal limit above which dead tissue was present and below which the coral was, seemingly, healthy. Up to 30% of the reef was affected by some degree of die-off.

Bunaken reef flats. (a)Close-up of one Heliopora coerula colony with clear tissue mortality on the upper part of the colonies; (b)same for a Porites lutea colony; (c) reef flat Porites colonies observed at low spring tide in May 2014. Even partially above water a few hours per month in similar conditions, the entire colonies were alive. (d) A living Heliopora coerula (blue coral) community in 2015 in a keep-up position relative to mean low sea level, with almost all the space occupied by corals. In that case, a 15 cm sea level fall will impact most of the reef flat. (e–h) Before–after comparison of coral status for colonies visible in (c). In (e), healthy Poritea lutea (yellow and pink massive corals) reef flat colonies in May 2014, observed at low spring tide. The upper part of colonies is above water, yet healthy; (f) same colonies in February 2016. The white lines visualize tissue mortality limit. Large Porites colonies (P1, P2) at low tide levels in 2014 are affected, while lower colonies (P3) are not. (g) P1 colony in 2014. (h) Viewed from another angle, the P1 colony in February 2016. (i) Reef flat community with scattered Heliopora colonies in February 2016, with tissue mortality and algal turf overgrowth. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

The confinement of the dead tissue to the tops and flanks of the corals, lead the scientists to think that the deaths must be linked to variations in sea level rather than temperature, which would affect the organisms ubiquitously. To confirm the theory the researchers had to establish that there had indeed been fluctuations in sea level across the region between the springs of 2015 and 2016.

To do so they consulted data from regional tide-gauges. Though not located exactly on Bunaken, they provided a good first-order measure of sea levels over the period of time in question. To bolster their results, the team also used sea level height data acquired by satellites, known as altimetry data, which had sampling points just off Bunaken Island. When compared, the sea level data acquired by the tidal gauges and satellites correlated well.

Sea-level data from the Bitung (east North Sulawesi) tide-gauge, referenced against Bako GPS station. On top, sea level anomalies measured by the Bitung tide-gauge station (low-quality data), and overlaid on altimetry ADT anomaly data for the 1993– 2016 period. Note the gaps in the tide-gauge time series. Middle: Bitung tide-gauge sea level variations (high-quality data, shown here from 1986 till early 2015) with daily mean and daily lowest values. Bottom, a close-up for the 2008–2015 period. Taken from E. E. Ampou et al. 2016.

The data showed that prior to the 2015-2016 El Niño, fluctuations in sea levels could be attributed to the normal ebb and flow of the tides. Crucially, between August and September 2015, they also showed a sharp decrease in sea level: in the region of 15cm (compared to the 1993-2016 mean). Though short-lived (probably a few weeks only), the period was long enough that the corals sustain tissue damage due to exposure to excessive UV light and air.

NOAA provides real-time Sea Surface Temperatures which identify areas at risk for coral bleaching. The Bunaken region was only put on alert in June 2016, long after the coral die-off started, therefore supporting the crucial role sea level fall played in coral mortality in Indonesia.

The link between falling sea level and El Niño events is not limited to Indonesia and the 2015-2016 event. When the researchers studied Absolute Dynamic Topography (ADT) data, which provides a measure of how sea level has change from 1992 to 2016, they found sea level falls matched with El Niño years.

The results of the study highlight that while all eyes are focused on the consequences of rising ocean temperatures and levels triggered by El Niño events, falling sea levels (also triggered by El Niño) could be having a, largely unquantified, harmful effect on corals globally.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and resources

Ampou, E. E., Johan, O., Menkes, C. E., Niño, F., Birol, F., Ouillon, S., and Andréfouët, S.: Coral mortality induced by the 2015–2016 El-Niño in Indonesia: the effect of rapid sea level fall, Biogeosciences, 14, 817-826, doi:10.5194/bg-14-817-2017, 2017

Varotsos, C. A., Tzanis, C. G., and Sarlis, N. V.: On the progress of the 2015–2016 El Niño event, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 2007-2011, doi:10.5194/acp-16-2007-2016, 2016.

What are El Niño and La Niña? – a video explainer by NOAA

Coral Reef Watch Satellite Monitoring by NOAA

Global sea level time series – global estimates of sea level rise based on measurements from satellite radar altimeters (NOAA/NESDIS/STAR, Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry)

El Niño prolongs longest global coral bleaching event – a NOAA News item

NOAA declares third ever global coral bleaching event – a NOAA active weather alert (Oct. 2015)

The 3rd Global Coral Bleaching Event – 2014/2017 – free resources for media and educators

What is coral bleaching? – an infographic by NOAA
The ENSO (El Niño–Southern Oscillation) Blog by Climate.gov (a NOAA resource)

Imaggeo on Mondays: Curaçao’s coral coastline

Easterly trade winds can carry warm moist air to the island of Curaçao, having picked up moisture while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Lying just south of the hurricane belt, Curaçao can still suffer the effects of these storms. For the most part, though, the coast has experienced little damage, leading to great preservation of the fossil reefs that fringe its coast.

“Incoming Storm” by Jaap Schellekens, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

“Incoming Storm” by Jaap Schellekens, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

The northern coast of Curaçao, which you see in the photo above, is made-up of limestone terraces that have been uplifted since their formation. Each of these terraces is comprised of fossil coral reefs from the Late and Middle Pleistocene, making them approximately 11,000 to 780,000 years old. The uppermost terraces have experienced the most erosion and the lowest terrace, which reaches 10-12 metres above sea level, has been partially eroded, most likely due to storm or hurricane waves. Together with the fossil reefs that make up Curaçao’s coast, the island is surrounded by a live fringing reef, densely populated with different species of Acropora. The reef stretches some 20 to 200 metres offshore, covering a vast 127 km2 in total.

Close-up of an Acropora colony, a reef-building coral. (Credit: David Burdick/NOAA)

Close-up of an Acropora colony, a reef-building coral. (Credit: David Burdick/NOAA)

Climate change is likely to have a severe impact on the growth of reef-building (scleractinian) corals in the region. Sea surface temperatures are expected to rise worldwide, with the highest rates of change occurring in the Caribbean, south east Asia and eastern Australia, all major coral habitats. The increase in sea surface temperature is likely to result in the bleaching of many corals, especially those that are already living in conditions close to their upper limit of temperature tolerance.

See the Caribbean Marine Biological Institute for more information on Curaçao’s coral reefs and the threats it faces.

References:

Shellman, G. et al. ESR Dating of Coral Reef Terraces on Curac¸ao (Netherlands Antilles) with Estimates of Younger Pleistocene Sea Level Elevations. Journal of Coastal Research, 20, 947-957, 2004

James, M. and Crabbe, C. Climate change, global warming and coral reefs: Modelling the effects of temperature. Computational Biology and Chemistry, 32, 311-314, 2008

 Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their images to this repository and since it is open access, these photos can be used by scientists for their presentations or publications as well as by the press and public for educational purposes and otherwise. If you submit your images to Imaggeo, you retain full rights of use, since they are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.