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Environmental Research Institute

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Education In Caithness

Coral Reefs In Focus In Caithness !

During these cold, windy days in Caithness, the warm seas of the tropics may seem far away.  However, for the scientists at the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso who are currently investigating the fate of corals reefs of the Indian Ocean the story is rather different.

Due to ‘Global Warming’ the future of coral reefs looks rather bleak.  Over the last few decades, coral reefs, renowned for their stunning beauty and extraordinary bio-diversity have been under increasing threat due to rising ocean temperatures. Now scientists at the North Highland College’s Environmental Research Institute (ERI) are involved in investigating the issue.

Professor Barbara Brown and Richard Dunne both from the University of Newcastle and Craig Downs of Envirtue Technologies of San Francisco in the USA are working with ERI manager Dr Stuart Gibb to examine the ability of corals to adjust to increasing sea temperature.

During research work at the ERI, Professor Brown pointed out how corals world-wide have suffered as sea temperatures have risen that: ‘In recent years, temperatures of many tropical seas have increased over the last 50 years to the extent that many corals are living close to their lethal limits.’

‘Corals respond to elevated sea temperature by losing their colour. This process known as ‘bleaching’ has been observed all over the world in the last 20 years. Bleaching was most dramatic in 1998 when corals in all the major oceans were affected.  Bleaching is the result of loss of minute coloured plant cells from the coral animal, which when extreme can cause the death of the coral.  This is an alarming prospect for these highly diverse ecosystems which have been described as the rainforests of the sea and which are also vital resources for coastal populations in the tropics.’

Dr Gibb also spoke of the threats faced by corals. ‘Corals are showing that they may not be able to adapt fast enough to keep pace with the present rapid changes in ocean temperature resulting from global warming. At the ERI, we have the skills and facilities to make a real contribution to this highly topical investigation. Professor Brown is a scientist of international esteem. It is a real privilege to be working with her on this project and a measure of the growing ability of the ERI to undertake environmental research of the highest standard.’

The team is investigating ways in which corals from the eastern Indian Ocean might be able to protect themselves from the damaging effects of rising sea temperature and in turn limit the bleaching response. The work is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Natural Environment Research Council of the United Kingdom.