In the repetitive “what’s wrong with you morons” lists of obvious man-made climate disasters that come our way in comments and emails from climate alarmists, the death of corals is a dependable entry. But we urge people, in addition to minding their manners and checking their facts, to be sure to communicate with the corals as well, telling them they’re dead and should lie down. Because like the proverbial GI they seem to be too dumb to notice it on their own, including most recently in a study of Rowley Shoals in Western Australia.
Scientists were studying the reefs because they were subject to a mass “bleaching” earlier this year. But when they went to look more recently they had that most classic of scientific moments, namely “Oh, that’s weird.” Followed by another one in which they spoke out loud about what they had found.
“We were expecting to see widespread mortality, and we just didn't see it … which is a really amazing thing,” said Tom Holmes, head of the research team and marine monitoring coordinator at the State of Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions. And a contribution to science.
So what is this “bleaching”? Coral bleaching occurs not when corals die outright but when they expel the algae living in their tissues. Nature being, as we have observed, marvellously complex, the colour of coral like that of flamingos is not inherent, though in the former case it comes from symbiosis and in the latter from diet. But what most handy online guides to the phenomenon do not explain, while blaming it on climate change, is why, since the algae and coral have a mutually beneficial relationship, coral would react to “stress”, which means any menacing change in their normal environment from too hot to too cold to the wrong water chemistry, by further reducing their chances of survival. (The answer appears to be that in the very short run the coral conserves resources by breaking its deal with the algae, in a process akin to farmers eating their seed corn because a bountiful spring sowing is little use to a person who died in January.)
The discovery that corals can bleach in an emergency then regain their algae and dramatic coloration when it passes, including an emergency caused by the water getting warmer, is one more proof that nature is complex and that the planet was not basically a uniform or slowly changing temperature until we messed it all up with our nasty smokestacks and car exhausts. Coral adapts to sudden temperature changes because it has evolved to do so because they are not unusual.
It’s no excuse for polluting the oceans or ignoring signs of trouble, of course. But we must not, also, ignore signs that a simple-minded linear “we killed the coral with CO2” argument is unsound if, among other things, the coral is not dead. Amazing.