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A cuttlefish among the Great Barrier Reef corals. Photo: David Doubilet – Nat Geo

How removing seaweed is helping the world

2 March 22

From Nat Geo: This has been a week in which old and new specters of apocalypse seemed to be fighting for space in our brains. With all eyes on the Ukrainians who are fighting for their country, and on the threat of nuclear war raised by the Russian president, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn’t get the notice it otherwise might have. It was stark, but in its broad outlines also familiar. 

“The report is a summary of what we already know,” climate scientist Michael Mann told Kieran Mulvaney for our story. “Dangerous climate change is now upon us, and it is simply a matter of how bad we’re willing to let it get.” 

That will take years to find out. Meanwhile, here’s a small, good thing, the climate equivalent of a hot roll fresh from the baker’s oven. 

It’s a story from my colleague Sarah Gibbens about how scientists have found a way to help part of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Like reefs around the world, the Great Barrier has been hammered by warming waters, which cause mass coral bleaching. As corals die, the reef gets overgrown with a thick, brown seaweed called sargassum, which makes it hard for the next generation of coral larvae to find a home and grow.

But to that at least there’s a solution, albeit an effortful one: It’s called seaweeding. 

“It’s really simple. It’s just like weeding your garden. You just grab it and pull,” says ecologist Hillary Smith, a Nat Geo Explorer. When she and a team of volunteers did that on 12 experimental plots of about 270 square feet each—the size of a decent backyard vegetable garden—they observed a threefold increase in the number of new corals.

“Every year there are more and more coral babies,” Smith told Gibbens. 

It wouldn’t work on every reef; reefs in the Caribbean, for example, are overgrown with a kind of algae that is much harder to remove. But where it does work, it can buy the reef a little time—time in which we might start reducing the carbon emissions that threaten reefs worldwide. 

The IPCC said yesterday the planet is burning, and from the U.S. Supreme Court, a few hours later, came the sound of energetic fiddling, as the justices debated whether the U.S. Clean Air Act does or does not give the EPA the authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants. Previously the court had ruled, in Massachusetts v. EPA, that it does. But the current court might overrule that and decide that Congress must pass a specific new law if it wants to curtail carbon emissions. 

As that political struggle continues, in the U.S. and worldwide, one of the best ways to adapt to climate change, the IPCC said, is by preserving the nature we have: the wetlands and parks, mangroves and coral reefs that buffer us against the tides of change we’ve unleashed. Citizens can help with that—by seaweeding reefs, for example. 

In Australia, Earthwatch Institute helped organize volunteers who spent days weeding with Smith on the Great Barrier Reef. “We’re connecting people to the critical issue of our time—climate change,” Earthwatch CEO Fiona Wilson told Gibbens. “Action is the antidote to this almost existential crisis.”

 - AUTHOR: ROBERT KUNZIG – Executive Editor, Environment


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