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Scientists race to save nation’s reefs from climate change

The nation's coral reefs are rapidly turning into bright colors that are not pretty.
Climate change is rapidly killing the Philippines' rich coral reefs, turning the once bright pastel underwater landscape into a lifeless bleached wilderness. Art by Analyn Perez
The pinks, oranges and yellows are tell-tale signs of bleaching caused by climate change. The pastel hues that are spreading throughout the Philippines' underwater gardens are an anemic stage before corals become white, signifying death in the marine world. The past year has seen the biggest bleaching to occur in Philippine seas since 1998, according to scientists who gathered at a marine conference in the Manila Observatory on Tuesday. But much of the bleaching went unrecorded and unobserved, due to the lack of a proper coastal monitoring system in the country. “We cannot expect to help people when we don’t have the basics," said Presidential Adviser on Climate Change Elisea Gozun, who addressed the conference on the Integrated Evaluation of Coastal Research Enhancement and Adaptive Management (ICE CREAM) Program. The program is a research partnership between the Manila Observatory and University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute to “build up the science that leads up to adaptation and resilience," according to Manila Observatory Executive Director Antonia Loyzaga. The lack of local data on changes in the marine environment has hindered efforts to design programs to reverse the coral destruction. Gozun said the government has been forced to rely on other countries for data, when the country's rich biodiversity is nearly ideal for observing the impact of climate change on a variety of sea life. The Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle, a marine region that contains nearly 3/4 of the world’s known corals, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. At the end of three years, the information collected from the ICECREAM program will be used to create marine protection plans for barangays. Basic data first According to Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, basic information on coastal conditions is either non-existent or unavailable in the country. “Sayang lang ang dami ng data [from government agencies] that isn’t available to the public," said Licuanan. Licuanan’s study focuses on coastal ecosystems—particularly, the state of the country’s coral reefs. Last year’s summer season witnessed a rise in seawater temperatures, which result in the partial bleaching of many coral reefs in the country. Bleaching occurs when seawater temperatures increase by at least 2° Celsius above the average maximum. Dr. Fernando Siringan likewise shared the difficulty in collecting data when he conducted his study on the Philippine-wide vulnerability assessment of coastal areas to sea level rise, changes in shoreline position and coral reef destruction. Verification, he said, was difficult since they only had anecdotal data in certain areas. 'Kakaibang nangyayari' Siringan also emphasized the importance of establishing systems soon. “May kakaibang nangyayari sa atin. The magnitude of what is happening in the country is different from other countries," he said. His study also covers coastal erosion and seawater level rises. Coral reef destruction rates for instance, hit an all-time high of 95% after the bleaching that happened during the 2010 summer. If an El Niño similar to the one last year returns in 10 years, Licuanan says that only 11% of the country’s corals will be left after 50 years. If the return time is cut short to 5 years, only 1% of the country’s corals will survive by 2061. Dr. Cesar Villanoy’s study on sardine production, seawater temperature and rainfall, for example, indicate that fish production is highest during the El Niño phenomenon. According to Villanoy, this is because more rain dilutes the surface water, making upwelling less possible. Upwelling is a natural phenomenon in which colder and nutrient-rich sea water moves towards the surface. When upwelling does not occur, sardines are left with less phytoplankton to feed on, forcing them to move elsewhere in search of food. Switching to bangus The effect is not only ecological, but economic as well. In the Zamboanga Peninsula for instance, sardine manufacturers were forced to switch to bangus during a La Niña year. Villanoy said that the patterns caused by the coming and going of El Niño and La Niña “may impact long-term trends in primary productivity and fisheries." As seas continue to warm, encroaching on land and disrupting human lives, one of the biggest concerns will be how this will affect coastal communities. “[Data] imply that the present-day healthy reefs where [the Philippines’ most common species can be found] are likely to be resilient to the projected further warming of the seas," said Siringan. Corals of genera Acropora sp., Goniastrea sp., and Porites sp. are the most common in the country’s modern reefs. Fossils of these genera have been found in land areas that used to be underwater, implying their ability to survive deeper and warmer oceans. Siringan said that the same conclusion could not be made for human communities. Threat to heritage Climate change is threatening the country’s heritage, according to Dr. Porfirio Aliño. Recent data, he said, indicated a decline of biodiversity in Visayas seas. “The Philippines as a rich area of ecosystem goods and services needs to be understood and managed wisely," he said. The experts at the forum were quick to add however, that the country sorely lacks resources and experts to for effective climate change preparedness. Gozun said that while data collection is beginning to improve, the country still has a long way to go. The first step, she said, was raising awareness. According to Villanoy, local communities are involved early on in the research through workshops and seminars. Later on, when new tools and techniques are discovered, the communities are called back in for an update. Licuanan added that given the huge threat climate change posses, short-term solutions might also be necessary. “We can’t reorganize our government offices overnight but maybe we can create auxiliary groups [that can assist in monitoring]," he said. Members of the scientific community for instance, created the Marine Sanctuary Network (MSN), tasked to monitor coral reef developments all over the country. MSN is composed of different universities from all over the country. According to Licuanan, the seas are displaying the same pattern as they did last summer, indicating the possibility of another dramatic rise in seawater temperatures. If the cycle of seawater temperature increase becomes shorter and goes unmonitored, the vibrant greens and browns of our healthy coral reefs might become a thing of the past. – HS/TJD, GMA News