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Nov 13, 2018

CORAL Position Statement -Report on Global Warming

Photo by Claire Fackler, NOAA
Photo by Claire Fackler, NOAA


On October 8th, the IPCC issued its special report on the impacts of global climate change on nature and society. Specifically, the IPCC examined the results of warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the context of the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. The report can be found at

The report paints a grim picture of the consequences of climate change if the earth’s temperature rises by even 0.5°C and further states that rising temperatures will result in food shortages, more wildfires, and—of particular interest to us at the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL)—a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040.

Additionally, the report points out that the effects of climate change will not be disbursed uniformly across the globe. Rising temperatures will have a disproportionate impact on the poor as well as developing and island nations. CORAL works closely with many such communities around the world to implement solutions that are win-wins for both reefs and people.

Many media outlets have covered the release of this report, and many have focused on the predictions of devastating effects to coral reefs. Some of the reports have shared inaccurate data about the current state of coral reefs and very few media outlets have publicized the work being done by CORAL and countless other conservation organizations around the world to save coral reefs.

Statement from Madhavi Colton, Ph.D., Program Director of the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL):

The IPCC’s special report is an urgent wake-up call for action. To save coral reefs, we must act on two fronts: we must swiftly and drastically lower greenhouse emissions while simultaneously effectively reducing local stresses to reefs, such as from land-based sources of pollution and overfishing. Without effective action on both fronts in the next 20 years, we could be facing a world without functional coral reefs. CORAL has developed innovative, scientific solutions to meet this challenge.

The effects of losing an entire ecosystem would be devastating. A quarter of all marine life depends on coral reefs, and over 500 million people around the world rely on coral reefs for food security, economic well-being, and cultural identity. Goods and services—like tourism and fishing—derived from coral reefs have an estimated value of US$375 billion a year. Coral reefs are also critical for protecting coastal communities from wave action, erosion, and tropical storms. The world needs coral reefs, and decisive action will help ensure that we do not face a future without them.

Many coral reefs around the globe are in a state of decline. Some recent reports in the media have stated that we have lost 50 percent of the world’s reefs already. The truth is more complicated. The combination of rising ocean temperatures and local reef threats has resulted in the loss of 50 percent of reef-building corals (as opposed to coral reefs) over the past 30 years and placed an estimated one-third of reef-building corals at risk of extinction.

The good news is that there is hope for corals and coral reefs. A growing body of scientific research shows that corals and their algal symbionts can adapt to warming oceans, but little is known about whether corals can adapt fast enough to keep up with the pace of climate change. Without this crucial information, pessimism can prevail, undermining motivation to implement effective conservation actions and governmental policies.

CORAL is developing a new, scalable solution to meet the crisis facing our reefs, as described in the IPCC report, that will fill this knowledge gap. In partnership with world-class researchers, we are spearheading a multidisciplinary research project that is improving our understanding of how corals evolve in response to rising temperatures. We are using this scientific information to develop regional-scale conservation plans that we are implementing in collaboration with local communities in FijiHondurasIndonesia and Hawai‘i.

Our scientific research shows that the best way to give corals a fighting chance is by facilitating the natural process of evolutionary rescue. Evolutionary rescue happens when a population in decline is able to survive because individuals that are naturally better suited to deal with new conditions breed to regrow the population. In essence, evolution rescues the population before it goes extinct.

We have used our scientific research to define the attributes of networks that increase the probability of evolutionary rescue. We call these networks “Adaptive Reefscapes”. An Adaptive Reefscape is a network of healthy reefs that is diverse, connected, and large.  To learn more about Adaptive Reefscapes go to:

A key element of Adaptive Reefscapes is that they are based on portfolio theory—the idea that investing in a diverse range of options for the future increases the chances for success. This contrasts with other approaches that use inherently uncertain forecasts to focus conservation efforts on particular geographic locations and/or species. Such strategies are intrinsically risky. Adaptive Reefscapes also contrasts with approaches that are over-reliant on technology which, given the short window of time and resource constraints, are unlikely to achieve meaningful results for reefs at a global scale.

Given the rapid pace of climate change and its drastic effects, we can no longer rely on standard approaches to conservation that assume we know what the future will bring or that strive to return systems to the way they once were. We need innovative solutions that instead embrace the idea of change and harness evolutionary power. To address the crisis we face, we need a solution that can scale globally in a relatively short period and with limited resources. At CORAL, we have that solution.

Find out how you can get involved and learn more at

Photo by David Burdick, NOAA
Photo by David Burdick, NOAA
Oct 11, 2018

CORAL's Innovative Approach to Resolving Stormwater Issues in Maui

Coral reefs need clean water (P: Michael Webster)
Coral reefs need clean water (P: Michael Webster)

In a natural landscape, trees and soil help soak up rainwater, but in developed or urban landscapes, rainwater falls onto streets, parking lots, roofs, or other non-absorbent surfaces like concrete and asphalt. Instead of sinking into the ground, rainwater runs off the land, picking up harmful pollutants like nutrients, pesticides, petroleum residues, and sediments along the way.  During heavy rains, the water that runs off the landscape is called stormwater.

Eventually stormwater ends up in our oceans – either by traveling down storm drains or by flowing into waterways like rivers and streams that lead to the ocean. When polluted stormwater flows into the nearshore environment, it causes harm to coral reefs and other marine life. Nutrient pollution enables the overgrowth of algae which can kill corals by smothering them, blocking their access to sunlight and promoting coral disease. High levels of sediment runoff can also kill corals by suffocating them and blocking their access to sunlight.

In Hawaii, stormwater pollution is an island chain-wide problem. Because of our often steep topography and prevalence of altered landscapes (like concrete and deforested agricultural lands), most stormwater follows a quick path straight to the ocean. Large storm events in the islands can transfer so many pollutants into our coastal waters that the Department of Health has to issue “Brown Water Advisories” – warnings to the public that the water is potentially contaminated and poses a health threat to swimmers.

"A Brown Water Advisory is being issued for the island of Maui due to recent heavy rains. The public is advised to stay out of flood waters and storm water runoff due to possible overflowing cesspools, sewer manholes, pesticides, animal fecal matter, dead animals, pathogens, chemicals, and associated flood debris. Not all waters may be affected, however, if the water is brown stay out and continue to practice good personal hygiene. Follow up with your primary care physician if you have any health concerns.”

Stormwater in Hawaii not only poses a threat to coral reefs and human health but also negatively impacts the economy by causing a loss in revenue for the tourist industry. It causes a host of other environmental problems like polluting streams and denuding the land of important topsoil needed for agriculture. In West Maui, fallow agricultural lands and the design of dirt roads within these plantations has created easy pathways for sediment to travel to the ocean. Lack of ground cover, the slope of the land, and frequent heavy rains create perfect conditions to transport topsoil with all its contaminants down to coral reefs.

In West Maui, CORAL’s Clean Water for Reefs Initiative focuses on preventing sediment and nutrient pollution from reaching the ocean and degrading reefs.  We take a mauka to makai (“ridge to reef”) approach to restore the natural function of a watershed to filter stormwater and absorb nutrients, sediments and other chemicals.  We work with farmers, Hawaiian communities, local nonprofits, private businesses, and the government to restore streams, which capture and stabilize sediments and nutrients so that they don’t flow into the ocean.

We are piloting stream restoration techniques that combine modern technology with native vegetation and traditional Hawaiian agricultural practices. For example, we are planting deep-rooted vetiver grasses to help stabilize soil, absorb nutrients and pollutants, increase ground water infiltration, and improve the environment for successful replanting of native vegetation. When vetiver sediment traps are planted within dirt road “kickouts”, they can hold runoff from road segments, detaining water for long enough for sediments to soak into the soil, rather than flow into streams. These actions not only restore streams and prevent pollutants from entering the ocean, but they also lead to a whole host of benefits like restoring ecosystem services, improving habitat for species, and creating recreational opportunities for communities.

If you live on Maui and are interested in playing a role in this important work, we’d love your participation in our next planting day on October 13th from 8:00am-12:00pm. You can help plant native plants, create sand bag corridors, and take part in other fun stream restoration activities! For more details, email Annalea Fink at

You can also help reduce stormwater pollution and safeguard coral reefs year-round by reducing pesticide and chemical use in your yard, and/or by implementing low impact design (LID) solutions like building a rain garden or installing pervious pavement options in your home or workplace.

CORAL would like to thank the generous funders of our West Maui watershed restoration program during 2018: Bently Foundation, Hawaii Community Foundation, Hawaii Tourism Authority, The Keith Campbell Foundation, NOAA Coastal Ecosystem Resilience, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

Stormwater on a dirt road in Maui (P: CORAL Staff)
Stormwater on a dirt road in Maui (P: CORAL Staff)
Stream gulch restoration in Wahikuli P:CORAL Staff
Stream gulch restoration in Wahikuli P:CORAL Staff
Sep 10, 2018

Looking to the Future with Virtual Reality

Photo by Tobin Asher and Elise Ogle, VHIL
Photo by Tobin Asher and Elise Ogle, VHIL

In 2016, CORAL began an exciting new partnership with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University. Three key players met to kickstart this collaboration: Dr. Michael Webster, CORAL’s Executive Director, Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, VHIL’s Director, and Dr. Robert Richmond, Director of the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory. Although they didn’t know it at the time, their meeting would lead to one of the most popular virtual reality films presented at Tribeca.

Their discussion centered around one key question: How can virtual reality be used to advance coral reef conservation in the face of climate change? The answer became clear when Dr. Richmond, who is also a CORAL Board member, suggested that VHIL staff attend a Palauan congressional meeting to show leaders how their coral reefs looked in virtual reality. This meeting would provide decision-makers and leaders with an immersive opportunity to learn more about coral reefs, their importance, and the threats they face. And then, hopefully, to positively influence the trajectory of future laws and regulations affecting coral reefs and coral reef conservation.

With CORAL’s help, two VHIL staff members – Tobin Asher and Elise Ogle – traveled to Palau to film underwater virtual reality footage. Asher and Ogle’s visit coincided not only with the congressional meeting but also with a Stanford University Overseas Seminar, taught by Dr. Robert Dunbar and Dr. Stephen Monismith of Stanford University and Dr. Richmond. Asher and Ogle were able to join Stanford students and staff from the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC) on daily field expeditions and filmed a diverse selection of both healthy and degraded reefs.

The congressional meeting took place on July 7, 2017, at PICRC; Palauan delegates and senators attended the event, PICRC staff moderated the event and Dr. Richmond and Dr. Dunbar gave presentations on coral reef conservation and management. The goal of the meeting was to connect decision-makers and scientists and to facilitate understanding of how climate change and local stressors are affecting coral reefs in Palau and the people who depend on them.

After the presentations, Asher and Ogle ran personalized demonstrations of virtual underwater footage from Palauan reefs. Many congressional members had never experienced VR technology before, and for some senators, it was their first time seeing an underwater landscape of coral reefs.

An especially impactful underwater scene showed a popular snorkeling site, with tourists inadvertently kicking corals on the reef. Experiencing coral reefs in virtual reality and seeing the threats they face helped attendees understand the importance of protecting coral reefs, especially the popular tourist sites. Soon after the experience, Palauan senators introduced initiatives that would reduce the number of people at popular tourist sites and also made commitments to further research to protect coral reefs.

The collaboration between the VHIL and CORAL didn’t end after the landmark congressional meeting. Asher and Ogle attended the 2017 CORAL Prize event last September and led individual immersive experiences for attendees. CORAL staff experienced bustling Palauan coral reefs and saw the power of virtual reality for conservation.

VHIL staff also used the virtual reality footage from Palau to create Coral Compass: Fighting Climate Change in Palau, an underwater VR film that was showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018. The film was a breakout star at the festival, garnering praise like “the best… virtual reality experience on offer at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival” from Observer Magazine. The film’s upbeat message helped connect viewers to coral reefs, and its interactive nature contributed to its success. As underwater filmmaker Ogle points out, “When you put the headset on and you feel immersed, that’s really what drives this experience as far as creating attitude and behavior changes for coral reefs.”

The VHIL team is now working to bring Coral Compass to popular Virtual Reality platforms, like SteamVR, Oculus and VIVEPORT. The film is available on Oculus here.

Asher believes the message of hope was critical to the film’s impactful debut. “One of the things that was important to us was that it wasn’t a doom and gloom story. We wanted to emphasize that there are things people can do to combat what’s happening, and if we take action we can see positive results for coral reefs.”

CORAL Prize attendee experiences a reef in VR
CORAL Prize attendee experiences a reef in VR
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