Where corals lie
Where corals lie
Ruth Gates, marine biologist, died on October 25th, aged 56
A RATHER LARGE number of people thought that corals were rocks. And certainly, in Ruth Gates's almost-bare office at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology, where Kaneohe Bay filled the window, the only object on her desk was a lovely ivory-pinkish stone coral, branched like a tree. But it would have been much more beautiful alive, a colony of tiny polyps bustling and busy as a three-dimensional city. It would have been much more stunning when the algae lodged in every cell of every polyp were feeding them sugars built from sunlight and coloring them so crazily that she could only gasp "Wow!", and laugh, when she swam past them. But then she also said "Wow! That's gorgeous!" when she saw, under the laser scanning confocal microscope, just one daring individual flex its muscular mouth or shoot out its sting-tipped tentacles to catch food from the water. Her single-minded mission was to keep these beauties going.
It was hard work. It got all the harder as the oceans warmed and acidified and the corals, stressed and angry (for they had feelings), spat out their algae and began to bleach and die. In 1998, 2010, 2015 and 2016, increasingly close together, mass bleachings occurred all round the world. She was the first to show that it happened more in warmer waters. Diving in Kaneohe Bay, where most healthy corals were an elegant dark brown, she found a muddy olive mess. Elsewhere she saw reefs she had once loved full of white ghosts, like a battlefield. Off the north shore of Jamaica, where she had done her doctoral work in 1985 on a reef with a sudden, sheer wall of massive and beautiful corals, developers killed it in two weeks. She could never go back to places that humans-"we", she always said, not exempting herself-had so recklessly destroyed.
Adent voices were speaking up for the giant panda and the rainforest; not many spoke for corals. She strode right in. A third degree black belt in karate and an explosive technique on a boxing punch-bag made her pretty well-formed to fight. It was horrible, though, to state the facts. Over 90 of global warming in the past 50 years had occurred in the oceans. About half of the world's reefs had been lost since 1990. By 2050 they could either all be gone, or damaged beyond recovery. And a quarter of marine species, the main food source for half a billion people, depended on them.
She had a plan, however. She laid it out in 2013 in an essay that won a prize of $10,000 from the Paul G. Allen Foundation and then, with Madeleine van Oppen, a grant of $4m, after which she was made director of the institute, among the palms of Coconut Island. That was a joy: a campus big enough to deploy her battered golf cart, and freedom to pick colleagues properly mixed by race, gender and sexuality, not tediously white male. ("You rock!" was her cry of encouragement to them.) Out in the bay, fortified with coffee and sometimes buzzed by turtles, she did her almost daily diving, feet-first off the boat when she was really eager.
Back in her lab, in a "gym" (or possibly a spa) for corals, she put the strongest little beasties in vats and doused them with warming water. Her purpose was not to kill them but to create "super corals", by giving them an experience of stress they might remember and prepare for. For corals had good memories. She had found, too, that their algae came in many varieties, some more helpful against stress than others, so she persuaded less choosy, "entrepreneurial" corals to host heat-tolerant algae, to see how they got on. Those that did best would be returned to the reef, and weaklings rejected. She also played matchmaker, collecting sperm and eggs from healthy individuals in their weirdly brief breeding season to produce in vitro offspring that might prove hardy sorts.
This drew plenty of criticism. She was accused of tinkering with nature, speeding up evolution, narrowing diversity. Besides (said the critics), the money should be spent on slowing climate change. Though she was friendliness and niceness itself, still carrying her Englishness in her accent and in a tendency to go pink in the heat, she sharply rebutted those remarks. Tinkering with nature was nothing new; dogs had been selectively bred for the longest time. As for narrowing diversity, climate change was forcing the most obscene genetic-narrowing experiment that had ever been done. She was doing what she could to help nature resist. Ideally, she would not have to. But this was a desperate situation.
What frustrated her most, as a scientist, was that fellow-scientists stayed in their own silos, producing lengthy papers to be peer reviewed, arguing endlessly with each other, while corals were dying. She had the data. Everyone did. She told the public the story in blunt, simple words. And she had to act now, not wait for permission. Her work might be only small-bore, not scalable; she accepted that. But if some coral colonies survived, there was hope, and she lived on that. What idiots they would be if, after all their talking, there was no coral left for anyone to see, and the underwater films of Jacques Cousteau which had so amazed her as a child, even in black and white, turned outto be a record of a lost world.
Co-operation was the key. She wanted scientists and others in every field to say, "I have this piece of special knowledge; how can I help?" For planet Earth was like a jigsaw puzzle in which corals and giant pandas, savannah and rain forest, were all pieces that must fit together. If one piece was lost, what would be the consequences for the others? What would happen to human beings? She did not know. But the corals, which in easier times lived in such happy symbiosis with the algae inside them-maybe the corals knew. _