Can Corals Buffer Climate Change?


A new study suggests that coral reefs have had a way to deal with warmer water conditions long before humans started contributing to this problem.  These stunning ecosystems not only contain creatures in every shape, size, and color, but they seem to be albe to act together through a sort of chemical symphony to alter their environment.  The data that was collected basically shows that corals can release a chemical that forms clouds over the reef, thereby cooling the water temperature in the immediate area and buffering them slightly against local warming.  Mind blowing I know, lets take a look at how it works.

How Do They Do It?

To understand what the corals are doing here, we first need a baseline of coral biology.  Corals are calcium secreting organisms that are able to house algae in their tissues which gives them the energy to live and form their skeletons.  We know that corals can exist in a range of temperatures generally from 70-82 degrees Fahrenheit, outside of which they will die or expel the algae that lives in their tissues in a process known as coral bleaching.

Now that we have established that, let’s imagine a hot sunny day on the great barrier reef.  Sounds pretty good right now doesn’t it? As the corals go about their day, they coat themselves in their natural brilliantly colored sunblock as the tide passes water through their stony fingers. All of a sudden, the cloudless sky has caused the water temperature  to start creeping up close to the upper end of their happy zone.  Now what?  Well in the hundreds of millions of years these creatures have been on this planet, they seem to have been able to work collectively to initiate a chain of events that in effect blocks the sun from heating up the water in their local areas.  Here is how it works.

Corals release a chemical called dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP) which somehow they are able to all do all at the same time.  This DMSP then acts as food for pelagic bacteria that float in the water column.  These bacteria take DMSP and convert it to dimethylsulphide (DMS), which is released as a gas into the water.  This gas then bubbles up to the oceans surface and is released into the air where it actually spurs clouds to form, shading and cooling the local environment.  This multi step process in effect allows corals to walk over and turn off the light switch, amazing!

Cloud Forming Corals - New Page

We have known for a long time that clouds form by water droplets adhering to small particles that are in the air.  What we didn’t know was that the corals can directly influence the # of these particles through this DMSP–> DMS  process.  DMS basically is acting as the particle for the water to adhere to and voila, clouds!


Can This Be Done On a Larger Scale?  

Interestingly enough, this process has been known for some time and over the years scientists and NOAA have actually experimented with “cloud seeding”  where small particles are dropped from airplanes into the atmosphere to try and spur on cloud formation.  This was also something that was theorized could be used to slow down or weaken hurricanes before they make landfall, although I don’t think this has been tried on any large scale with success.

This is just the latest discovery of how nature given enough trial and error time can come up with some pretty amazing stuff.  It also makes me wonder how many more complex feedback mechanisms might be out there that we still have yet to discover and learn from.



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