n 2016, vast populations of coral reefs turned ghostly white. The incident was not confined to a single location; it swept across the world’s oceans like an unstoppable wave—hitting areas as far flung as the Maldives, Florida and Australia, which saw two-thirds of its Great Barrier Reef affected. These once vibrant ecosystems were drained of their color, as if a frost had descended on the ocean floor. And it was all because of environmental stress.
Corals, part of the animal family, are immobile; the creatures live their lives attached to the ocean floor. As the foundational structure of complex underwater bionetworks—or holobionts, as scientists call them—corals rely on the symbiotic microorganisms that live within their tissues to keep them alive. Microalgae are particularly valuable. They convert the sun’s light and warmth into the specific molecular nutrients that corals thrive on. They also give corals their distinctive hues.
But major stress events, like climate change, can upset the delicate biological balance of the reefs. In response to rising water temperatures, corals expel microalgae—in essence, banishing the very nutrients they need to survive. This leaves the entire reef a stark, barren white.
Reefs are a critical food source,
shelter to 25%
of all sea life.
"It’s not actually dead at that point in time,” explained Emma Camp, a marine biologist currently working as a Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, “but it is basically struggling to get the food that it needs.”
Such events are known as coral bleaching. And the increasing frequency of their occurrence is one of the most dramatic visual indicators of the impact of climate change on living systems. Camp has plans to address it. This work caught the attention of Rolex, which for decades has sought to support projects that protect the environment. And recently Camp was announced as one of five Associate Laureate winners of the 2019 Rolex Awards.
It’s been a real honor to be recognized by a company such as Rolex. It has transformed my work.”
Since 1976, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise have been highlighting the work of enterprising individuals around the globe whose work aims to improve the quality of life on our planet, boost scientific knowledge and propose solutions to environmental challenges. This year, Rolex has enhanced this effort through an initiative called Perpetual Planet, which amplifies the work of the Rolex Award winners, in addition to other environmental efforts.
“It’s been a real honor to be recognized by a company such as Rolex,” Camp said. “And it has transformed my work.”
That work has long focused on trying to find ways to help reefs better survive in changing environments. In essence, she wants to ensure corals retain their complexion. Her latest idea, which involves studying the adaptive capabilities of certain species, may finally offer a solution.
From the suburbs to the sea
Raised in Essex County, England, in a landlocked suburban town northwest of London, Camp didn’t have coral reefs on her mind during her early childhood. But that changed when she was seven or eight years old and visited the Bahamas on vacation with her family. Going snorkeling for the first time, Camp was stunned by the vibrant aquatic world thriving just below the surface. “From then, that was my passion,” she said. “I loved it.”
At university, she was finally able to pursue marine biology, striving to gain all the practical, hands-on experience that she could. She joined research projects in the Florida Keys and the Cayman Islands. She pursued a master’s degree in environmental management, followed by a PhD in marine biology. All along, she knew she wanted to focus on coral reefs—not simply because of their beauty, but also their importance. “When I did the study abroad during my undergrad, I gained an appreciation of how valuable the reefs were,” she said.
The food security of many communities around the world depends on seafood coming from coral reefs.”
Indeed, half a billion people worldwide rely on the fragile ecosystem. Reefs are a critical food source, providing vital shelter to 25 percent of all sea life. They also provide coastal cover from potentially damaging waves. In the U.S. alone, the economic value of reefs is estimated at $3.4 billion annually.
Christopher Golden, an assistant professor of nutrition and planetary health at Harvard, is currently engaged in a four-year study in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, investigating the impact of coral reef die-offs on human health. “The food security of many communities around the world depends on seafood coming from coral reefs,” he explained. “[Reefs] remain critical to the livelihoods of a hundred-plus countries.”
As Camp conducted her field studies, she spent a lot of time with the members of such communities. “I’ve built up relationships with people who, if the reef dies, are going to struggle for their future survival,” she said. “So I wanted to do what I could to help.”
What Darwin can teach us about
saving the reefs
It was during a research trip in Indonesia that Camp had a simple, but weighty realization: some coral populations are significantly more resilient than others. At the time, she was working in mangrove forests, an inhospitable habitat where the water is very acidic and low in oxygen. Yet still, corals were thriving.
“The environment there was more extreme than we are predicting for the next 200 years in the open ocean where coral reefs are typically found,” Camp said. “So, how are these corals surviving in these lagoons? What can we learn from their mechanisms of stress tolerance?”
Explorations like this trip can be quite hard to fund. Rolex’s support of solutions to urgent ecological challenges has been huge.”
Camp hopes the answers to these questions can be a salve for the global coral population. Her research focuses on understanding how exactly the mangrove corals endure. The hope is that the species have some kind of evolutionary advantage—and haven’t merely carved out some kind of localized environmental security. If indeed they’ve evolved to be resilient, Camp and her team can remove and relocate portions of them to continue growing elsewhere. In theory, as they cultivate, they could bolster endangered reef ecosystems with some much-needed strength.
In the U.S. alone, the economic value of reefs is estimated at $3.4 billion annually.
“If we can show that they’ve actually genetically adapted and we can transplant them,” she said, “that opens up new avenues to restore areas of degraded reefs.”
This vital effort got a boost when Camp was tapped from among more than 950 candidates for the Rolex Award. The recognition isn’t only focused on oceans—other 2019 winners include a man looking into the impact of volcanoes on climate and a woman helping rural communities coexist with wildlife. Yet despite a broad range of issue areas, Camp is eager to tap into this robust network to buttress her efforts.
“The Rolex community contains many exemplary individuals with diverse skill-sets that I would like to work with, some of which I have already begun conversations,” she said. “The ability to promote the work, get the messaging out there of what's going on with the reefs, and facilitate collaborative opportunities has just transformed the impact and reach of the work.”
We know what the problems are. We know many of the solutions that we need. And now, it’s about actually turning that knowledge and science into action.”
One individual she is particularly excited to connect with is Dr. Sylvia Earle. A renowned explorer and oceanographer, Earle once held the world untethered diving record, having descended roughly 1,250 feet beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in 1979. Although Earle is not a laureate, she has twice been a judge for the Rolex Awards. The company’s Perpetual Planet initiative also supports her nonprofit organization, Mission Blue, which is dedicated to marine conservation.
“[Earle] is an amazing advocate for the oceans, as well as for women in science,” said Camp, whose own advocacy has led to an honorary appointment with the United Nations as a Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals. “Her devotion to increasing awareness on the threats our oceans are facing, while ensuring we do not lose hope, are traits I hope exemplify through my career.”
Beyond these connections, the award has enabled important progress on research. With Rolex’s support, Camp is travelling to the Howick Islands on the Great Barrier Reef, where she and her team will study the biology of local corals to understand how they’re adapting to the increasingly challenging environmental conditions they’re facing.
“This is a step towards the first big coral transplantation,” she noted. “Explorations like this trip can be quite hard to fund. Rolex’s support of solutions to urgent ecological challenges has been huge.”
In safeguarding reefs at this critical moment, Camp is making good on a life-long dream.
And with continued progress, she can help ensure that generations of young people experience vibrant, healthy corals just like she did.