As smoke from the western North American megafires migrated across the Pacific in early September of 2020, Aziz Mulla flew with a small team of scientists to Lanyu, a remote island 40 miles off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. They were responding to reports of a different kind of wildfire. While no flames scorched forests, the hottest Northern Hemisphere summer on record caused dramatic increases in water temperature around the island’s renowned coral reefs.
Mulla and his team took a small diving boat out to a section of reef they have studied for years. He describes the location as one of the most gorgeous diving sites in the world. That morning the sea was as calm as a lake. Its turquoise waters glistened in the sunlight. In the distance, the steep hills of Lanyu, also known as Orchid Island, were covered in a shaggy emerald.
“I remember getting nervous about the dive while on the boat, which isn’t something that usually happens,” says Mulla, a coral ecologist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s national university, who has made thousands of dives all over the world. From the boat, Mulla says the destruction was obvious. Corals that should have been a palette of bright hues now glistened like bone. The heat had caused them to expel their color- and life-giving symbiotic algae, a phenomenon known as bleaching that can lead to the corals’ starvation and death.
Having developed an intimate bond with a particular species of coral, Pocillopora verrucosa, Mulla dove immediately to one of the animals for an up-close look. “The tips of its branches were burnt,” he says. “It was as if someone had taken a lighter to them.”
Lanyu’s reef was bleached to depths as low as 100 feet. The shrimp, other crustaceans, and small fish who usually live on top of coral were noticeably absent. Larger fish like groupers and parrotfish were also eerily scarce. And the damage was not unique to just that section of reef. In fact, so many of Lanyu’s formerly healthy reefs were bleached that a luminous halo had formed around the island.
The term ecological grief is relatively new in the scientific lexicon but the pain and despair it signifies have been heavily felt over the past few decades as climate change and destructive activities have erased ice shelves, forests, cherished species, and even killed humans. A related term is solastalgia, a neologism coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to signify the existential distress caused by ecological destruction. Climate-induced changes cast a particularly dark shadow. Even as we look at beloved, still-intact landscapes and ecosystems, we know what could soon happen to them..
The terms ask us to consider not only the physical toll of climate change on the environment, but to assess how its decline affects our own mental health. Since scientists have a front-row seat, many bear the weight of this grief and anxiety; in response some communities of researchers have set up online support groups to share their experiences and find comfort. Because the effects of climate change on corals can happen so quickly, as in the reefs off Lanyu, marine biologists may be especially traumatized.
“It’s actually tragic,” says Charles Sheppard of the University of Warwick, who has studied coral reefs in the Chagos Archipelago for more than 40 years. “On a dark night, I really grieve. In fact, some other scientists I know have actually shed tears underwater while scuba diving after seeing the rubble caused by a recent heat wave.”
The reefs he studies are some of the world’s finest. Due to their isolation and the territory’s ban on commercial fishing, Sheppard describes them as Earth’s reef “laboratory”—as close reefs now get to baseline perfection, that incredibly rare state of being unaffected by human interference. Sheppard recalls how, earlier in his career, he took other scientists diving for the first time in the Archipelago. They gushed about the reefs’ nearly pristine condition, with thousands of species thriving alongside one another in a kaleidoscope of life.
Even so, many reefs in the Chagos Archipelago have been bleached, most recently during back-to-back extreme heat episodes in 2016 and 2017. In his latest paper, “Coral wreaths and the rise of phoenix coral,” Sheppard describes a vicious feedback loop: not only are there fewer coral larvae, but less habitat for them to colonize. Much of the Archipelago’s reefs have turned into what he calls “liquid sandpaper.” “My suggestion with this paper was that we’ve reached a tipping point,” Sheppard says. “Less and less corals are being produced and they now have less space to settle on. It’s a slippery path to extinction, really.”
“We can be optimistic, but we also have to be realistic.”
Sheppard also grieves for the impact of coral deaths on humans. The people who are “going to suffer the most are not the tourists,” he says. “It’s the people who harvest a living day by day and live a hand-to-mouth existence.” Nearly half a billion people rely on coral reefs for fish protein, says Sheppard, and climate change will kill many of them.
Nevertheless Sheppard finds ways to stay optimistic and keep moving. “I know I’ll be dead in 30 years,” he says, “but I still will go to the doctor now if something is wrong with me. A human doesn’t say, ‘Well, what’s the point if I’m going to die anyway?’ Of course not, there are things to do!” He advocates for more research on reefs and outreach to the public—and despite his grim forecast, he wrote in that last paper that “a recovery is possible again.” It will require heat waves to be less extreme than predicted, and perhaps for people to take a hands-on approach to managing the reefs, and even then won’t be guaranteed, but there’s still a chance.
Back in Taiwan, Mulla deals with ecological grief primarily through teaching others, including the public but also friends and family, about what is happening to corals. “Having them experience the same empathy I feel, helps a lot,” he says, “Forest fires are extremely easy to see, but coral reefs are hidden below the surface—and most people think they’re rocks.” Education, Mulla believes, is a necessary step to decreasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Mulla still has hope. He points to a 2016 study, “Bright spots among the world’s coral reefs,” which described 15 exceptionally vibrant reefs—some in remote, relatively pristine locations, but others flourishing near places where many people live. These reefs may hold lessons for protecting others, even in a rapidly changing world.
Among the bright spots were Taiwan’s reefs, making this summer’s catastrophic bleaching all the more tragic and also a pressing research subject for Mulla and his team, who are hurrying to understand which coral species will return and how they will respond to further warming events. Like Sheppard in the Indian Ocean, Mulla thinks Taiwan’s reefs are reaching a tipping point. “In 2050, I think we’re going to be looking back at 2020 and think we had it pretty good,” he says. “Will we have coral reefs in 2050? Yes. Will they look the same? Probably not. We can be optimistic, but we also have to be realistic.”
It’s difficult to imagine the grief Mulla and Sheppard must feel when witnessing the destruction of reefs they’ve studied so closely. I can, however, identify with their solastalgia, particularly this summer of 2020, as the West exploded into fires that burned 5 million acres and choked half the hemisphere with smoke.
Much of that smoke was the remnants of cherished trees, plants, animals, and fungi in places I’ve known well. While I’ve never been scuba diving, I imagine witnessing mass bleaching is like moping past the burn zone of a devastating wildfire, like I did after this year’s Dome Fire, which burned 43,248 acres in California’s Mojave National Preserve where stood the densest Joshua tree forest in the world. Instead of the bleached slopes of white Mulla described, I saw blackened stands of snags, charred ground cover, and the burnt corrals of a nearby ranch. Another fire this summer took a nearby canyon in my home state of Colorado, and I now breathe the smoke of one still aflame on treasured mountains above Los Angeles.
These forests will not regenerate in our lifetime. Perhaps they won’t even look the same for our great-great-grandchildren. It is a lot to take in: the world’s forests and oceans on fire at the same time. I find buoyancy, though, in every expert I interview who has dedicated their life to finding solutions. It’s proof that there are people who will put themselves on the front lines of environmental trauma to find knowledge that will help our planet and the people who rely upon it.
Research by Charles Sheppard was funded by the Bertarelli Foundation. More information about its marine science programme can be found at www.marine.science
Lead image: At left, reefs in American Samoa in December 2014; at middle, those same reefs two months later, after a bleaching event; at right, the reefs in August 2015, after they've started to regenerate. Credit: The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey