All posts by Callum Tyndall

Climate-resistant coral reefs could be used to re-seed dying cousins

Scientists have found that coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba and in the Northern Red Sea are displaying a particular resistance to the effects of global warming and ocean acidification. It is hoped that, provided they survive local pollution, they could be used to re-seed areas of the world where reefs are dying.

Around the world, global warming is wreaking havoc with coral reefs. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef survived last year with only a third of its ecosystem unbleached yet now enters into a second year of enormous coral bleaching.  But when assessing Aqaba corals that had been exposed to six weeks of stressful conditions, researchers found no bleaching.

“[Under these conditions,] most corals around the world would probably bleach and have a high degree of mortality,” said Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) scientist Thomas Krueger.

“Most of the variables that we measured actually improved, suggesting that these corals are living under suboptimal temperatures right now and might be better prepared for future ocean warming.”

Coral reefs play an important role as some of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems. With the Gulf of Aqaba acting as a unique coral refuge, perhaps providing the key to understanding the biological mechanism that leads to thermal resistance or the weakness that underlies massive bleaching, it is hoped that the region’s corals could be the future of dying reefs.

While the exact biological mechanism that makes the corals in the Gulf of Aqaba thermally resistant is still unclear, researchers believe that they understand the evolution that would result in said resistance. In essence, following the last ice age, a thermal bottleneck was created at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, meaning that in order for species to reach the Gulf of Aqaba they would have had to develop a certain level of heat resistance.

That said, while the Aqaba corals may well be the future of reefs in dealing with global warming, they are not free of danger. Local oil pollution, nutrients from fish farms and herbicides from gardening could all work to reduce the tolerance of the region’s reefs.

Images courtesy of EPFL/ Itamar Grinberg

“This reef should receive international recognition as a natural site of great importance, because it might very well be one of the last reefs standing at the end of this century,” said Anders Meibom of EPFL and Université de Lausanne (UNIL).

“I would like to encourage the countries around the Gulf of Aqaba – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel – to get together and create a strong protection environmental program, because even if these corals are resistant to rising water temperatures, they are still sensitive to local pollution, overfishing etc, and they need to be protected from this now.”

Provided they can survive local disturbances – hopefully with the help of those countries around the Gulf – researchers hope that they can use samples from the Aqaba reefs to re-seed dying reefs in the Red Sea, and perhaps even around the world.

A lunar station is the “next logical step in space development”

The next step for space development should be the creation of a lunar station, according to a paper published in the journal New Space. It is argued that the lessons learnt from the development of the International Space Station (ISS) should now be turned towards “exploring architectures for beyond low-earth-orbit (LEO) space development.”

Perhaps one of the chief arguments for a lunar station is its capability to act as a testing ground. In the same way that the decades-long development of the ISS taught us about technologies and science in LEO, the development of those capabilities into a lunar station could help enable the long-term aspiration to establish a settlement on Mars.

“It can provide a testing and proving ground for a variety of important advanced technologies and capabilities, including robotics, ISRU, resource depots, deep-space crew habitats, closed-loop life support, in-space propulsion, optical communication, and space-additive manufacturing,” the authors, Robert Bruce Pittman, Lynn D Harper, Mark E Newfield and Daniel J Rasky from NASA’s Space Portal, wrote in the paper.

A design for a lunar base by Foster + Partners developed for the European Space Agency. Image and featured image courtesy of ESA/Foster + Partners

The possibilities for scientific studies are also mentioned but, perhaps more interestingly, “the Lunar Station will give our space program a much-needed logical next step to strengthen its relevance to the US public, its leadership in the international community, and its technical cutting edge.” Fittingly given the Trump presidency’s approach to space being reminiscent of the space race, the lunar station is suggested as a means to re-establish the US as a forerunner in space development.

Furthermore, there is a clear emphasis on the potential offered by partnering with private space companies. The paper points out that both China and the European Space Agency (ESA) are not only planning for further lunar exploration and development, but have declared themselves open to collaboration with private companies.

With probably the foremost private space company in the world, SpaceX, based in the US, and President Trump favouring private companies taking part in future space development, it makes sense to leverage Elon Musk’s ambitions toward a more currently achievable goal than Mars. With the paper also finding interest from the investment community, a lunar station could well be a private-fronted effort.

A 1989 depiction of a lunar base, showing an expandable habitat module similar to the real-life modules developed by Bigelow Aerospace. Image courtesy of NASA

The station itself would be a permanent facility on the Moon, able to support crews of 6-10 people. Intended to operate and develop similarly to the ISS, but with a broader range of stakeholders, the station would act as both the hub and starting point for any further settlement of the Moon. In the same way that the ISS now features commercial activities in addition to the scientific work, the various stakeholders in the station would be able to develop their interests around the core of the station.

“The Lunar Station community would jointly develop and share infrastructure as well as separately develop and own specific capabilities,” the authors wrote. “Activities would range from scientific research and technology development to resource mining and processing and to human exploration of the Moon and even tourism.”

The paper predicts that it would take 5 years to build the station and it would cost roughly $2bn a year to build and operate.