Maldives reefs showing resilience to the worst effects of climate change – for now….
by Jean-Luc Solandt, expedition scientist
Biosphere Expeditions, The Marine Conservation Society, Reef Check, and local Maldives environmental group ‘Save the Beach Maldives’ have just returned from a 250 km expedition around the central Maldives. They found that corals are showing some resilience, adaptability and even recovery from climate change effects.
Reef scientists and nature lovers the world over have been devastated about the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef since 2016 from the effects of climate change. The impact of the 2016 spike in temperatures also badly affected the coral reefs of the Maldives with coral cover falling over 20% to 19% in the immediate aftermath of the ‘bleaching’ event. Many reefs simply died.
Scientists from the current expedition have noted some remarkably positive signs. Expedition scientist, Dr Jean-Luc Solandt said ‘We were devastated in summer 2016. Reefs didn’t recover in 2017 and 2018. However, this year we’ve noted baby corals growing well at new sites that we thought would be badly damaged – showing a greater diversity of corals ‘pushing through’ from the dead layer below.
Scientists are still trying to understand the responses of different reefs the world over to such damaging events. Although the background temperatures in the Maldives were higher than usual (at 29 to 30 degrees Celcius), many different coral lifeforms are now present.
Solandt went on to say ‘before the bleaching event, a type of coral called Acropora were dominant and almost ubiquitous. These are always badly affected by warming events. Our concern was that with Acropora-dominated shallow reefs being devoid of coral, there wouldn’t be ‘other’ corals to fill the space after 2016, or that the Acropora wouldn’t come back. It was our immense concern that the new freed-up space might be dominated by algae and sponges – leading to a catastrophic decline in the very structure of islands that are built on hard corals. But our surveys have shown resilience (of corals that are resistant to bleaching), adaptability (some reefs have other species coming through), and recovery (baby corals are almost everywhere). It’s not all plain sailing though. Another temperature spike would kill many of the corals we’ve seen. And some small corals that had settled on the reef in the last year were bleached, but the larger ones seem OK.’
Hassan Ahmed and Farish Mohammed of the local environmental NGO ‘Save the Beach Maldives’ has also benefitted from the trip. ‘We’ve learnt to become ‘eco-diver trainers’ from the expedition, and will use this immediately to train 30 boy scouts in recording the reef conditions of our island. Such initiatives with litter collection on our beaches has already resulted in much less littering of our islands. We believe such reef education and recording will better help respect for our island nation.’
Surveys will be carried out by Save the Beach Maldives, and training of other Reef Check divers in future. The Biosphere Expeditions annual survey will return to the central Maldives in September next year.
Some pictures and videos of the expedition: