THE BLOG

How to Train Your Coral

04/14/2015 05:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

Imagine you are in the tropics. Walk down the beach to the water's edge. Put on a mask and snorkel. Take a plunge into the warm, shallow sea, and swim out over the coral reef that lies below. Watch with excitement as beautiful fish of all colors, shapes and sizes dart around looking for their next bite to eat. Look on with wonder at the small crabs, worms, and snails that call the reef home. Float weightlessly above the intricate maze of cracks, crevices, and canyons that is a coral reef. Now imagine that coral reef is dying.

You can stop imagining -- that coral reef is dying.

One of the very real and immediate impacts of climate change is widespread death of corals - the important animals that make up the building blocks of reefs. Warming oceans are the main cause in a global threat to corals known as coral bleaching. When water temperatures are too high, tiny plants known as zooxanthellae that live inside the tissues of healthy corals suddenly leave the coral, causing a once colorful animal to turn stark white. If the warm temperatures that cause this bleaching persist, and the coral remains without its partner plants long enough, the coral will die. Scientists all over the world have been studying this phenomenon, and their predictions for the future of coral reefs are quite bleak. They have been ringing alarm bells for quite some time telling us that continuing to pump carbon dioxide into our atmosphere at current rates will cause our oceans to get so warm that many corals will not have a chance.

For Dr. Ruth Gates of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, finding a solution to this problem is of paramount importance. Her lab focuses its energy on understanding the processes that happen inside living corals in hopes of understanding how we might be able to help these animals survive the climatic conditions of the future. Her approach might surprise you. She explains it as "putting corals on environmental treadmills." She is attempting to turn on traits that corals already possess within their own DNA, in a virtual arms race against a warming ocean. Our film crew visited with Dr. Gates during a coral bleaching event in Hawaii to learn about her science and her passion for finding positive solutions to this global crisis. Take a look at what she is doing in this short video.