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Bringing the coral reefs back to life

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Coral reefs are being killed by the climate crisis, which is leading to rising sea temperatures. “Cryopreservation”, a pioneering scientific technique, could be one way to help save them.

A tiny piece of coral is stuck to a thin sheet of plastic, and submerged in a tank at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay, on the island archipelago. This is part of a unique process which includes the cryopreservation [the use of very low temperatures to preserve living cells and tissues] of sperm, larvae and tissue, to create what has been called the “Book of Life” for coral.

Marine biologists, working on land and in the water, collect sperm and eggs from reefs during their annual spawning events, in the warm tropical water surrounding palm-fringed Coconut Island, and then in labs, where they prepare the coral for cryopreservation.

Ground-breaking techniques

Mary Hagedorn, a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, leads the team at the Institute which is pioneering these techniques. 

“Cryopreservation is a relatively new field of science originating in the late 1940s, but was only first used to preserve human embryos in the early 1980s and then eggs at the end of the 90s,” she told UN News on a visit to Coconut Island.

“We have been working for the last 16 years on adapting those techniques to successfully preserve coral sperm, and also coral larvae, to store in living frozen bio-repositories, and help restore reefs now and potentially reseed the ocean in the future. We’re really collecting the Book of Life for coral reefs, and that’s significant.”

Coral reefs across the world are being threatened by climate change. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that about 25 to 50 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and another 60 per cent are under threat. 

Warm, acidic oceans, and coral ‘heart attacks’

As oceans become warmer and more acidic, the corals are bleached, an event which Mary Hagedorn compares to a person suffering a heart attack. “If bleaching happens on an annual basis then corals may ultimately die off,” she said.

Corals are animals that create their own skeleton to help support them. These animals live in shallow warm waters around the world using sunlight to synthesize their sugar-based food. Reefs are not just “beautiful ecosystems” renowned for their biological diversity, according to Dr. Hagedorn, they are also crucial to life on Earth. “Almost 25 per cent of all marine life lives on a reef at some point and so without them many species of fish that we eat wouldn’t exist. Corals provide a natural protection for our coastlines, for example against tsunamis. They also support people’s livelihoods in the form of fishing and tourism and contribute 350 billion annually to the global economy.  So, there are many reasons we should save them.”

Researching for the benefit of future generations

A small international team of marine biologists is based in the lab on Coconut island, which sits on top of a coral reef and is surrounded by many more, making it possible for the scientists to collect samples in a small dinghy, or by snorkeling. They also travel to many tropical countries around the world to help preserve their reefs including in Australia, Singapore and French Polynesia, among others. 

In the institute’s laboratory, Australian postdoctoral researcher Dr. Jonathan Daly examines polyps, individual coral animals, under a microscope. 

“Corals have a very restricted annual cycle for reproduction (just a few days) and so there is a very brief window to collect their sperm and eggs in the field, and bring them into the lab for cryopreservation,” he says, adding that “today, coral reproduction is impacted very heavily by warming oceans.”

The material gathered by the team is stored in frozen biorepositories and it’s hoped ultimately that other marine biologists in laboratories worldwide will eventually be able to preserve corals where they work. This would save the biodiversity and genetic diversity of their local coral reefs and help to create the Book of Life for corals that Mary Hagedorn talks of.
This means that, if one of the many thousands of coral species found around the world becomes extinct, then potentially it could be regrown from the frozen biorepository.

The role of the ocean in economic and social development

“Our job is really not about today, it’s about 200 or 500 years from now when, hopefully, our oceans have returned to pre-industrial conditions,” says Mary Hagedorn in her laboratory. I’ll never see the fruition of our work in my life, nor will my students or their students. Nevertheless, we have set this whole thing in motion, and as a scientist, I know we’re doing something that really is good for the planet.  However, it is very critical that we do this work now, while corals still have robust genetic diversity.” Mary Hagedorn and her colleagues were interviewed as part of a photographic project called “Dignity at Work” which is being undertaken across the United States by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).
Oceans’ role in economic and social development

Kevin Cassidy is the Director of the ILO Office for the United States: “We have seen the far-sighted and truly inspiring work on coral reefs by Mary and her team,” he said, explaining the key role the ocean plays in economic and social activity.

“When one is fishing for seafood it creates income for the fisherman, his workers, more jobs in wholesale markets and shops, purveyors and transport workers, chefs and waiters serving food, patrons at restaurants and taxis.

It is an economic string that threads its way through society.”

And he warns of the danger of not looking after marine resources. “The impact of dying oceans would not only be an ecological disaster but would also take a large human and economic toll.”

Back outside on Coconut Island, the work continues in between tropical rain showers. The plastic sheets which were planted in water tanks with individual corals on different occasions show how, over time, the animals grow bigger and stronger.  Ultimately, when the conditions are right, they could be returned to the ocean to restore reefs. And in the longer term, the corals now stored in frozen biorepositories could bring back to life species killed by the effects of climate change.

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Environment

Discrimination in the air

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Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, causing about 7 million premature deaths every year. On 7 September 2020, the United Nations observed the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This article is part of UNEP’s continuing coverage of air pollution and its impact globally.

Over 40 per cent of the U.S. population – about 134 million people – face health risks resulting from air pollution, -according to the American Lung Association. The burden is far from evenly shared. Studies show that in the United States, people of color and low-income communities face a significantly higher risk of environmental health effects, highlighting that the impacts of air pollution are experienced unequally throughout the country.

People of color are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and high road traffic density, increasing risks to their health. As prominent American environmental justice activist and leader Robert D. Bullard emphasizes, race and place matter.

For example, along the Mississippi River in the southern United States, there is an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. In the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, many people live right next to several high-polluting industrial plants. Residents, who are predominately Black, have seen significant cancer clusters, with cancer risks in the area reaching up to 50% more than the national average. In St. John the Baptist parish alone, an area of about 2 square miles, the cancer rate is about 800 times higher than the American average.

Similarly, New York City neighborhood Mott Haven, home to mainly LatinX and Black families, has a very high level of air pollution from traffic, warehouses, and industry.  Residents in Mott Haven face some of the highest rates of asthma cases and asthma-related hospitalizations in the country, especially among children.

Often, communities experiencing high levels of air pollution are among the most vulnerable, facing poor access to health services, limited economic opportunity, more polluted work environments and racial injustices.  Comprehensive policies are needed to address these interrelated challenges.

“There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic factors and risk of air pollution,” said Dr. Barbara Hendrie, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme North America. “Recognizing this, and the disproportionate impacts of air pollution throughout the United States is a critical part of developing effective solutions.”

On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in September, the UN Environment Programme called upon governments, corporations, to civil society and individuals, to take action to reduce air pollution and bring about transformative change.

Air pollution does not have to be a part of our collective future. We have the solutions and must take the necessary actions to address this environmental menace and provide #CleanAirForAll.

UN Environment

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New strains of rice could address climate change

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Rice is a staple for more than 3.5 billion people, including most of the world’s poor. But it can be a problematic crop to farm. It requires massive amounts of water and the paddies in which it grows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

To tackle such issues, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working with the Shanghai Agrobiological Gene Center to develop strains of rice that are drought resistant and don’t need to be planted in paddies. The research, say, experts, could help bolster food security at a time when COVID-19 is threatening to propel more people into hunger.

The study, which runs from 2017 to 2021, is funded by the Government of China and falls under the China-Africa South-South Cooperation arrangement.

“China has lots of experience growing rice and this collaboration with China is a first,” says UNEP ecosystems expert Levis Kavagi, who has been closely involved with the project.

Researchers have developed and tested over 50 varieties of rice in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. They evaluated how the grains grow at different elevations and, importantly, how they taste.

WDR 73 also doesn’t need to be planted in a flooded paddy. That’s important for several reasons.

Transporting seedlings into flooded fields is a laborious process. Paddies are breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Water shortages, sparked by climate change, are expected to make filling paddies a challenge in many countries. And paddies themselves vent massive amounts of methane –  up to 20 per cent of human-related emissions of the greenhouse gas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

Growing rice on relatively dry land also reduces the ever-growing quest to open up wetlands, havens for birds and other animals, to farming.

“Usually the most suitable land for growing rice also tends to be next to, or in, wetlands or flood plains,” says Kavagi. “Expanding agricultural land involves draining the wetlands. This leads to loss of biodiversity, and reduced water purification and climate regulation services provided by wetlands.”

The ultimate goal of the project is to get a national certification of WDR 73, allowing it to be broadly disseminated to farmers. The project is part of a larger effort by China, African countries and UNEP to develop better rice varieties, improve livelihoods and bolster food security.

“The project shows that with new rice varieties it is possible to achieve the multiple objectives of food security, biodiversity and nature conservation – and fight against climate change,” says Kavagi.

Technical details of rice trials in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda

In Kenya, trials were conducted over three growing seasons in Mwea (central Kenya), Busia (western), and Mtwapa (coastal area). Rice variety WDR 73 performed well compared with the local Basmati varieties. The growth duration varied from 125 days in Mtwapa, to 150 days in Mwea and Busia, where the altitude is over 1,000m. Average grain yield was 5.1 to 9.0 tonnes per hectare. Plant height was 100-110 cm, which shows that this variety is tolerant to rice blast disease and displays good drought-resistant qualities compared to Basmati varieties.

In Uganda, WDR73 cultivation experiments were conducted in Lukaya, Luweero and Arua. In well-managed farms, grain yield increased from 4.35 to more than 6.0 tons per hectare. In Arua, in 2019 the rain-fed crop was direct sowed from 25-30 August and harvested from 30 November to 5 December. The growth duration was 90-95 days and yielded 4.35 tonnes per hectare. Direct seeded WDR 73 grain yield in Luweero in 2019 varied from 6 tonnes per hectare in rain-fed conditions to 8 tonnes per hectare in irrigated paddy fields.

In Bolgatanga, a drought-prone area in northern Ghana, WDR 73 growth duration was 105 days and plant height 110-120 cm, while the grain yield was 6.0 tonnes per hectare.

UN Environment

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Vietnam Signs Landmark Deal with World Bank to Cut Carbon Emissions

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Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development signed a landmark agreement today with the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), unlocking up to US$51.5 million for Vietnam’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation between now and 2025. With this Emission Reductions Payment Agreement (ERPA) in place, Vietnam is expected to reduce 10.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from six North Central Region provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien Hue to receive $51.5 million from the FCPF.

Vietnam has shown tremendous leadership in developing robust programs to deliver forest emission reductions at scale,” saidCarolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam. “This agreement marks the beginning of a new chapter for Vietnam, where new and significant incentives for forest protection and improved management are now in place to help the country meet its ambitious climate targets.”

Vietnam’s Emission Reductions Program is designed to address the underlying causes of forest loss in the country’s North Central Region and by so doing reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The program will also support forest restoration. The region was chosen for its critical biodiversity importance and socio-economic status. The program area covers 5.1 million hectares of land (16 percent of the land area of the country), of which 3.1 million hectares are currently forested, and includes five internationally recognized conservation corridors. It is home to approximately 10.5 million people, nearly one third of whom live below the national poverty line.

“Vietnam’s program follows a preparation phase that built our readiness to engage in an emission reduction payment agreement of this kind and is a step towards full implementation of forest carbon services in Vietnam. This agreement highlights the collaboration between Vietnam, FCPF and the World Bank to meet international climate targets laid out in the Paris Agreement,” said Ha Cong Tuan, Standing Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. “Our program will mobilize important additional financing to invest in our forests and reduce forest degradation while generating income for forest owners and improving sustainable development in the North Central Region.”

Vietnam is the first country in Asia-Pacific and fifth globally to reach such a milestone agreement with the FCPF. ERPAs are innovative instruments that incentivize sustainable land management at scale and help to connect countries with other sources of climate financing. The resources from the FCPF provide new opportunities to conserve and regenerate forest landscapes and biodiversity while simultaneously supporting sustainable economic growth, which is critical for Vietnam’s development going forward.

The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) is a global partnership of governments, businesses, civil society, and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, forest carbon stock conservation, the sustainable management of forests, and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries, activities commonly referred to as REDD+. Launched in 2008, the FCPF has worked with 47 developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, along with 17 donors that have made contributions and commitments totaling US$1.3 billion.

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