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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science Issue: Coral Reefs and Carbon Footprints

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    05 Apr

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

    Find out more

    As scientists, I believe we have a responsibility to act based on our understanding of the world around us. In a time where the President of the United States dismisses climate change as a hoax, it falls to others to educate and respond to this crisis. Multiple peer-reviewed scientific publications have shown that 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree on this simple fact: the trend of a warming climate seen over the past 100 is extremely likely to be due to the activities of humans.

    One of the greatest incentives for reducing my carbon footprint is to save the coral reefs. I have not yet had the privilege of seeing these beautiful natural phenomena, but I hope to get the chance sometime in the future.

    Corals are built-up by miniscule animals called polyps. These polyps produce a substance, calcium carbonate, which hardens. The coral reef is formed from the build-up of the calcium carbonate over time. Coral reefs also contain algae, which have a mutualistic relationship with the polyps. The coral provides a safe environment and compounds needed for photosynthesis for the algae. To repay this, the algae provide the coral with oxygen and help with waste removal. This is termed a symbiotic relationship.  

    Increases in temperature, pollution, and disease can make the coral get rid of the algae. Unfortunately, this leaves behind the calcium carbonate white skeleton, replacing the beautiful landscape we imagine when we think of a coral reef. This event is referred to as “coral bleaching”. With global warming heating up the oceans and carbon dioxide polluting and acidifying them, coral bleaching is becoming more frequent than ever before. This increased frequency is affecting the ability of the coral to regain health between the bleaching events. We are losing not only the striking natural beauty of the coral reefs, but also critical ecosystems that support fish, mollusks, crustaceans and all manner of sea creatures.

    Published results are predicting that coral bleaching will damage 99% of coral reefs within the next 100 years, and recently on Blue Planet II Sir David Attenborough warned that all coral reefs could die within 80 years. I believe that as a scientist I have a responsibility to lead by example. I have the skills to understand the data on climate change, and I have made the informed decision that it is ultimately the responsibility of humanity to halt and reverse the climate-warming trends. I cycle or take a commuter bus to work; I try to recycle as much as I can, be less wasteful in the lab, and I am trying to cut down on my disposable plastic usage. I urge you to care about this issue, and together we can save the natural beauty of the coral reefs.

    Elizabeth Hampson
    PhD Student, Babraham Institute and Murray Edwards College