Warming Sea Temps and Coral Bleaching

With summer heat fast-approaching, it’s a good reminder that the planet’s oceans are warming fast too. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Elizabeth Alberts, a senior staff reporter at Mongabay about coral bleaching. We discuss how coral bleaching affects marine life, learn about bleaching events, and look at the various ways that coral reefs react to warming sea temperatures.  Then, we re-visit part of our 2023 conversation with Jeff Stoike, of Blue Action Lab, as he describes his organization’s efforts to protect fragile aquatic environments.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Elizabeth Alberts (EA) | 00:16 – It’s a ray of hope. So maybe something can be done with using this coral or figuring out, you know, what makes this coral special. Like what are the elements of this coral that, that make it so resistant to heat?

Narrator | 00:30 – With summer heat fast approaching, it’s a good reminder that the planets oceans are warming fast too. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Elizabeth Alberts, a senior staff reporter at Monga Bay about Coral Bleaching. We discuss how Coral Bleaching affects marine life, learn about bleaching events, and look at the various ways that coral reefs react to warming sea temperatures. Then we revisit our 2023 conversation with Jeff Stoike of Blue Action Lab as he describes his organization’s efforts to protect fragile aquatic environments.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:18 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Elizabeth Alberts. Elizabeth is a senior staff writer at Mongabay and works on their ocean desk. Elizabeth, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Elizabeth Alberts (EA) | 01:30 – Thank You. Thanks for having me.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:31 – So we’re talking to you from outside of Brussels, Belgium, is that correct?

Elizabeth Alberts (EA) | 01:35 Yes.

AW | 01:37 – So you don’t have a lot of coral reefs close to Belgium, but it’s one of the issues that you’ve been covering quite effectively for Mongabay. I’d like to discuss this piece that you wrote last month entitled “Global Coral Bleaching now underway looks set to be largest on record.” It seems like this is the new normal, kind of like breaking heat records. We’re going to see a lot of these type of stories, unfortunately. What are some of the areas that you, as a science reporter are looking at to see where the needle is moving and, and what are some of the big events that environmentalists should be looking at when they analyze the coral reef system In our, in our oceans?

EA | 02:22 – Well, we should just be looking at ocean heat, uh, I mean ocean heating and see temperature rise and Coral Bleaching is just a result of, of these, this rise in global temperatures, which has been, you know, it’s, it’s it’s sea temperatures have been going up every year. This year there is a dynamic with, or there has been since last year with a, with the El Nino climate pattern, and it’s causing all sorts of fluctuations and just crazy temperatures. So what’s happening now is the fourth Global Coral Bleaching event. And, um, yeah, it’s not looking good. I mean, you can look at  the NOAA bleaching alerts there, and, and you’ll, you’ll see a lot of the, the really dark red, uh, they have different levels for the type of bleaching, uh, or, or not the bleaching. It actually measures the, the seat, um, the temperature of, of the sea. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that bleaching is happening there, but there’s usually it means there’s a very strong likelihood that bleaching is happening there. And then if you look at another tool called the Allen Coral Atlas, they use another way of measuring Coral Bleaching, which is measuring whiteness. And if you look at these maps, the reason I’m talking about this is because if you look at these maps now, it’s just everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere. There aren’t a lot of, well, there are some places that are, are not being affected for, for, for various reasons. Perhaps there’s upwelling, which is, is cooling, uh, you know, bringing cool water to, to the corals. But in many places in the world it is, it’s, it’s very bad. So it’s, it’s happening, um, in the Great Barrier Reef, as many people probably know that that bleaching event has, has gotten a lot of coverage, but it’s happening off the coast of Brazil. Um, I was just looking at what’s happening in the Maldives, um, that hasn’t gotten a lot of, um, coverage, but there’s bleaching happening there, you know, big tourist spot. Um, there, there’s, there’s bleaching happening in Thailand. It’s, it’s, it’s very concerning.

AW | 04:23 – And when you mention the fourth bleaching event, walk us through how scientists categorize that. Define a bleaching event if you can. 

EA | 04:30 – I think it’s just, it’s the amount that that, that the bleaches, how much of the world is being affected. And so the third global Coral Bleaching event took place between, uh, 2014 and 2017. So yeah, they can go on for, for several years. 

AW | 04:46 – So then they ease, like, so from 2017 till let’s say 2020 or something, there was a little bit of easing in this pattern.

EA | 04:55 – Yeah. So, so they have some relief. I was just, uh, looking at the Maldives and what’s happening there, and there’s a local scientist he was writing on, on, on x, uh, the social media platform X, and he was saying that, yeah, the, the, the reefs there really suffered during the last global Coral Bleaching event, and they had been able to recover. They were, they were somewhat resilient, but now they’ve just caught their breath, you know, now they’re being hit again, very, very hard. And scientists were, were, were, you know, raising the alarm about, about the Coral Bleaching and the Maldives in, in, in April. And if you look on the, um, satellite data, it, it’s, it’s still happening. So it’s, so far there hasn’t been a lot of relief. And, and you know, it, it’s, there’s, there’s so much bleaching going on, but you know, sometimes there isn’t a lot of, there isn’t a lot of reporting on it. And, and part of that is because, you know, you can look at the satellite DA data, you can look at the, um, you know, what Noah says with, with sea temperature, um, the likelihood of bleaching happening or, um, the, the, if there’s, if there’s whiteness, but really scientists, from my understanding, and I’m not a scientist, but I think you really have to get into the water and, and, and check, you know, like what, what is actually going on Is, is the satellite data telling us the, the, the correct story? So, um, it, it takes time, you know, to, to get people in the water, to get scientists there, to do the, the surveys. There’s a lot happening, but very little is actually getting very little information is actually getting out to the public about what is going on. 

AW | 06:30 – So explain if you can, how the bleaching of coral affects us affects so many creatures in a, in a very large ecosystem. When I say large ecosystem, we may think of just this one little band of tropical waters, but the ocean is very much connected. So it’s not just the ecosystem in let’s say, the great barrier reef, is it? 

EA | 06:54 – Well, they, you know, if corals are, are unhealthy and, and, and they’re bleaching and they’re getting close to dying or, or they have died, then all of the animals that depend on those corals, they might go somewhere else or, or, or die. And that affects, uh, seafood. For instance, if you eat seafood, um, maybe your, the fish are, you know, are, are not going to be doing so well. And this is going to really affect people who are dependent on, on seafood as a source of nutrition or dependent on fishing for, um, for their livelihood. It’s going to affect people who depend on tourism to, for their livelihood. You know, who’s going to, well, I think people still go, but you know, it, it’s, are people gonna be less likely to wanna swim with a bunch of dying or, or dead reef? So it’s, uh, it, it’s, we can be very far away from it, but it’s, it affects all of us. It, it’s all connected. 

AW | 07:54 – And when we say bleaching, it’s different than the chemical bleach, they’re being overheated, is that correct? 

EA | 08:02 – Yeah, so they’re, they’re experiencing heat stress, and they have this life sustaining algae called zanelli that they basically, when they get so stressed from the heat, they expel it. And usually, you know, there are many different types of corals and a lot of corals are very vibrant in color, but when they expel this, this algae, it’s a lot of them turn, you know, they turn white. So that’s why, that’s why we call them bleaching. I call it bleaching. So, uh, and, and a coral doesn’t necessarily die when it bleaches. Sometimes it can come back, you know, but if the bleaching is very, goes on for too long, meaning like if, if the sea temperatures do not go down, uh, after a certain amount of time, then they will likely die.

AW | 08:50 – So the explanation of this algae is a defense mechanism, and it, it’s a danger sign, a huge red flag for the coral, but it doesn’t necessarily spell their end. 

EA | 09:01 – Yeah, yeah. They can, they can bounce back. I mean, it’s, uh, the ocean can be, and it’s all, its organisms can be very resilient if, if we give them a chance and, and, um, yeah. But if, if they’re experiencing ongoing stress for a long period of time, then they’re that chance of being able to bounce back very much lessons.

(Music Break) | 09:30

AW | 10:38 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Elizabeth Alberts of Mongabay. So Elizabeth, we’re talking about global coral bleaching issues. What are some of the solutions that you’ve heard from scientists and other people in your coverage of this topic? 

EA | 10:54 – Well, the main solution is bringing down global emissions. You know, just cutting our, you know, bringing down, um, yeah, stopping our uses of greenhouse gases, isn’t it? So that will, that will help a lot <laugh>. But, um, the likely, you know, are we gonna be able to do that? Are we gonna be able to do that in time? I don’t know the other, there are other solutions, um, or at least things that will help. So, um, for instance, cutting down on forms of pollution, other, other stressors that, you know, over overfishing. Um, and yeah, just any kind of stopping any kind of activity that could harm the reef. And you’re seeing that, like for instance, in Thailand, they have these beautiful reefs, and they’re of course also experiencing Coral Bleaching at the moment, and what the Thai government is doing in some places, they’re actually just closing off the, the marine areas to tourists to try to give the reefs, you know, a chance to, to be a little bit more resilient. So it is, research shows that if you eliminate a lot of these other stressors, you know, like pollution, like, um, overfishing, then a reef is more likely to be resilient and be able to bounce back. Um, but if it’s a reef that is heavily fished, you know, heavily visited, you know, experiencing all kinds of pollution, then um, yeah, it, it, if if it’s hit by these high ocean temperatures and it bleaches, then it’s more likely that it will die. 

AW | 12:31 – And on a more granular level, have you run into any more localized solutions that could preserve a smaller space? Let’s say a well-funded nature preserve is experiencing a coral bleaching event. If no expenses are spared, what kind of solutions can they come up with that can kick the, can down the road, let’s say? 

EA | 12:55 – Well, I think scientists are still trying to figure that out. I mean, there is coral restoration and that that is a way to, to try to restore what, what has been lost. 

AW | 13:04 – And how, how does that work? What does coral restoration… is that just a general concept or is that a specific methodology? 

EA | 13:12 – Well, I think there are different ways of doing it, and I haven’t written too much about coral restoration itself, but from what I understand is that, well, for instance, this, this is one way of doing it. They might, um, take, take pieces of coral and, um, or, or for instance, heat, re heat res resistant corals, um, ones that seem to be faring better in terms of, um, you know, higher temperatures. And they might try to breed that coral or, or, um, cross-breed it with another coral that has another positive genetic trait, and they will likely do that in the lab or, or, or some kind of, you know, on land somewhere. And then they will grow it to a point where I think they call it out planting, where they, they will plant it onto the, onto, onto a reef or onto a rock and, and, and hope that it will grow. It’s definitely controversial. There are people who are very adamant that coral restoration is the way to go, and it is what is going to save our coral reefs. But, um, other scientists are, are, are not as optimistic about the chances of it working because a lot of these projects are at a very, very small scale. And to be able to scale it up is, it would be quite a feat and, and to be able to do this in time, that, that’s not to say there are, I know people are trying and, and there are a lot of efforts and a lot of funding is being put into this. And, and, and from a personal point of view, I, I sincerely hope that these efforts work and that it can be a viable solution. 

AW | 14:45 – But on a global scale, it’s, it really comes down to lowering sea temperatures, which is not something that one little science project is going to be able to do.

EA | 14:54 – Yeah. Well, there are, you know, people are, scientists are really looking at these heat re just resistant corals like in the gulf of aba in, you know, off the coast of Jordan, you know, some of these corals, they, they, they do, they thrive when the temperatures go up. You know, other corals might just die or, or, you know, just be completely stressed out. But they seem to be doing really well. 

AW | 15:17 – I was just in Egypt, and I have a friend who was just raving about the coral in the Red Sea, and I was a diver in my teens and got to see a great barrier reef in Australia and, and dived in Belize. And I know that those reefs are a shell of what they once were in terms of their color and, and natural beauty. 

EA | 15:39 – Yeah, it’s, it’s true. I, I haven’t been to, uh, dived off the coast of Jordan, but I, yeah, I’ve, I’ve dived in the Red Sea as well, and, and they do seem, it does seem very healthy there. Um, I haven’t been back in, what, six years, so I don’t know if things have changed, but it’s a ray of hope, so maybe something can be done with using this coral or figuring out, you know, what makes this coral special. Like what are the elements of this coral that, that make it so resistant to, to heat. But I do think that everyone is, is still kind of scrambling to, to figure this out and I, I, I do hope that we are able to figure it out in time. 

AW | 16:16 – She’s a senior staff reporter at Mongabay, Elizabeth Alberts. Elizabeth, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

EA | 16:24 – Yeah, thank you.

(Music Break) | 16:28

AW | 17:11 – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the co-founder of the Blue Action Lab, Jeff Stoike. Jeff, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Jeff Stoike (JS) | 17:19 – It’s great to be here, Alex, thanks so much for having me and giving me an opportunity to share our Blue Action Lab story. 

AW | 17:26 – Why don’t you first explain the mission of Blue Action Lab. Give us an idea of the organization’s genesis and what problems you’re trying to solve. 

JS | 17:36 – Sure, sure. Well, we have multiple missions because we have multiple entities that sort of work under our umbrella of the Blue Action Lab. And in short, it’s to promote the sustainable blue economy now that term itself has various definitions, but in effect we’re looking to promote sustainability, ie climate resilience and climate mitigation through the ocean, and in doing so, protect the communities and ecologies. That live in and around the ocean rely on the ocean as a source of food and as a tremendous element in the global climate equation.

AW | 18:26 – So when the green economy applies to oceanic pursuits, we call it the blue economy. Is that fair to say?

JS | 18:33 -That is a fair assertion, yes. 

AW | 18:36 – Okay, before we dive into some of the work that the Blue Action Lab is involved in, I’d like to take a step back and why don’t you tell us a little bit of your personal journey in, into where we are now. You, you are a cancer survivor and you’ve been all over some very interesting places around the world. So why don’t you kind of give us a quick recap of, of what you’ve done last decade or so.

JS | 19:02 – Sounds good. Well, going back a little bit further than the last decade, I’m a California native, born and raised in San Diego with, with the love of the ocean sort of built into my formative years and then went upstate to university at UC Berkeley and there I think really had some strong social and environmental values instilled in me and such that immediately after graduating, went to the Middle East and had my first real experience in environmental projects in sustainable development, as it’s now called. Working with a Goldman Environmental prize winner in based in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula. Her name is Doctor Leila Escandar and these really innovative social environmental sustainability projects with respect to marginalized populations in Egypt and the Sinai around solid waste management. And so I saw how this work could really be done thought about how I could bring that back to my home environment, did some community development work in the Bay Area, San Francisco, Bayview/Hunters Point. Really, some of these communities that have been environmentally dispossessed and economically dispossessed trying to reverse that. That phenomenon did some sustainable agricultural projects in the southeast started a sustainable AG network in the state of Georgia and then fell backwards into graduate school, got a Masters degree in ecology at the University of Georgia, and through that ended up really getting into food and farming in Latin America. Starting in Panama, working with the Globe Indigenous Group on the border of Costa Rica, looking at their agroforestry traditions and how we’re getting incorporated into large scale sort of multinational development plans and then got my PhD at the what is now called the Yale School of the Environment working in Brazil, again looking at high diversity, native species, forest restoration in the Atlantic Forest on the coast there – sort of the cousin to the Amazon – about a very heavily-populated area. Lots of subsistence farmers and then after finishing graduate school did a did a tour of duty in a jungle of a different sort. Washington, DC spent some time at the Urban Institute developing climate, philanthropy and place-based impact investing initiatives there and then did a stint at the State Department, working in the Office of Foreign Assistance Resources. Looking at how our $40 billion foreign assistance budget flows out into the world and to what effect and and how to optimize that and it was in DC that I got what I thought was just burnt out. But it turns out I was much, much sicker than that spent a year in the hospital, found out. I had been diagnosed with leukemia and so spent the bulk of 2018. Fighting for my life and after which I’m I moved back to the home state of California, started my family and took a little bit of time off to figure out where I was going to take my experience, take my value set how it could best be applied, you know, really had a new lease on life and while taking a few months to just sort of surf and contemplate these questions. I had a really impactful conversation with a grad school colleague that had just started his coral reef restoration company in the Bahamas. And I thought, hmm, interesting. Don’t know much about the Bahamas. Certainly don’t know much about Grand Bahama, where he had landed and as I learned more and we exchanged some ideas some of what I had developed in the waves off the coast of Ventura, I decided to head down to to Grand Bahama and it was February of 2020 to meet with my former grad school colleague and his business partner. That had actually brought him down, landed him and his coral reef restoration company on the island of Grand Bahama. And this gentleman’s name is Rupert Hayward. He’s very central to this story. He’s a fifth generation Bahamian, and he’s been wanting to take his family business, which is the Grand Bahama Port Authority, and use it as a vehicle for not just supporting Grand Bahama, especially in the wake of what was the most devastating hurricane in the history of the island, at least modern history of the island, Hurricane Dorian in 2019, he was looking to bring companies down to rebuild the island but also put the island, on a new development trajectory. Right, not just go back to business as usual. Oil and gas and cruise lines and but to diversify the economy and to use the resources of the island infrastructure wise commercially and and in terms of natural resources use the island as a responsible, living laboratory for what we hope would be the innovations and industries and ultimately economies of the future of the 21st century have built on regeneration, built on restoration, built on resilience. So it was in February 2020, as I said that I wound up on Grand Bahama and not only saw my friend’s coral reef restoration company Coral Vita, but met with Rupert and discussed this. This larger idea of how to really use the island after Hurricane Durian after that major wake-up call as an engine for industries that really soften what is often seen as a conflict between economic development and environmental sustainability.

AW | 24:53 – And so what’s your model? Are you a consulting company? How do you get paid? 

JS | 24:58 – Well, our model as I think one must be in times like these, a bit flexible. We originally started as a nonprofit that was, uh, working with foundations. UNDP was a grantor for us. 

AW | 25:13 – Wait, what, what is UNDP? I don’t think most people know.

JS | 25:16 – Oh, the United Nations development program. Sorry, I actually have a strong aversion to just throwing acronyms around, so forgive me for that. Yes, the United Nations Development Program gave us an early stage grant. To help us develop a socioeconomic impact assessment for the Blue Action Lab model. What would a sustainability economy on Grand Bahama look like on Grand Bahama, but also what sort of an impact could it have for other low lying island nations, other vulnerable coastal areas? So we originally started our nonprofit with sort of a membership model that would allow companies to come down and take advantage of the underutilized resources on the island, provided that they embodied the values of a regenerative economy or resiliency economy as as we described it, and that was all fine and good. We were chugging along, maybe on-boarding five companies a year, but not really having the impact that we hoped to. At least at the scale that we had hoped to, that we think that the urgency of of global climate change really requires. And so we had a fateful conversation about a year and a half in with a gentleman named George Northcott at an outfit called Founders Factory, based in London. George is actually now in New York, but his company is based in London, where they’re very interested in moving into sustainability and moving into climate. They are basically a venture firm. They’ve got offices in 15 countries but have not really worked in climate and sustainability. And they saw us as an incredible partner on the ground. We’re doing just that. And so we were looking for a commercial model. They were looking founders, factory was looking to get into climate and sustainability issues. And so we, we created this marriage of our two entities, created a joint venture just over a year ago. If I’ve got the dates correct where we decided to launch a formal accelerator program. With all of the embedded benefits of the Blue Action Lab. A world class port in Grand Bahama, a free trade zone where we can stimulate and accelerate the kinds of companies that we think will meet the mission of the Blue Action Lab and meet the challenge of climate change. We have a very strong partnership with the Grand Bahama Port Authority and the Bahamian government, and we have tremendous natural resources that can be accessed. In the name of research and innovation for environmental and social sustainability.

AW | 27:53 – He’s the co-founder of Blue Action Labs, Jeff Stoic. Jeff, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

JS | 28:00 – Quite a pleasure. Thank you. 

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to See Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis. And our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Freddie Hubbard, Joe Simon, and Harry Belafonte. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site. Or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.