A breakthrough to save coral reefs could happen in the Arizona desert

TUCSON, Ariz. - Inside Biosphere 2, north of Tucson, researchers hope a breakthrough to help save the world’s coral reefs will happen at the facility’s ocean habitat underneath soaring glass ceilings that glimmer in the desert sun.

University of Arizona researcher Katie Morgan says rising ocean temperatures and acidity levels are contributing to the death of coral. She says water is staying warmer, longer, which negatively affects the health of the ecosystems.

"It'd be like you running a 103 degrees fever for three months during the summer,” Morgan said.

Biologists in Australia reported 50% of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016. She says as coral dies there are serious ramifications above and below the water.

“So many people depend on the ocean for food, they depend on oceans for their culture, for their economy, and a lot of people travel to places because they have a coral reef,” Morgan said.

Researchers want to know what types of coral can survive in the conditions they believe will be present in oceans years from now and identify and develop that coral now. They call it “assisted evolution.” UA wants that breakthrough to happen at Biosphere 2.  

“There's no true replica for earth's systems but this an experimental tool unlike anything else we have in the world,” said John Adams, Biosphere 2 Deputy Director.

Adams says they University will install new control systems that will allow researchers to change the temperature and other conditions of the water to examine which species of coral will survive.

Staff will introduce sea creatures like urchins to remove the algae currently in the water before they install coral.

When the ocean habitat is finished, UA is confident Biosphere 2 will become the top destination for this type of research.

“We know it’s a problem that we have to solve. It’s not one we can just let go,” Morgan said.

The new equipment and work to install is estimated to cost roughly $5 million, Adams said. Biosphere 2 hopes to have the work done and ocean ready for experiments before 2021.

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