Israel’s Eilat coral reef. (Wikipedia)

In an unprecedented move, a group of Arab countries is joining Israel to establish a research center that will study, monitor and protect the Red Sea coral reef.

While coral reefs worldwide are dying out and suffering from the bleaching effects of global warming and pollution, the Red Sea coral reefs have been found to be miraculously resistant to these stressors. This has lead to an unprecedented partnership between Israel and several Arab countries.

“The relatively narrow sea is surrounded by countries and people who are directly dependent on the well-being of the coral reefs,” said Professor Maoz Fine, a marine biologist from the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti and Israel will partner at the Red Sea Transnational Research Center to study, monitor and protect the Red Sea coral reef ecosystems. The center will be led and organized by Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL.)

With millions of marine species, thousands of different fish species, and nearly 700 varieties of coral living in the Red Sea coral reefs, the importance of studying and saving the reef cannot be overstated. Additionally, coral reefs enrich the economies of countries bordering the Red Sea. Not only do fisherman rely on the reefs for fish production, but the reefs are a major tourist attraction. They also protect coastlines, as they serve as a natural shield against waves, which can otherwise erode beach fronts.

In April, Science Times reported that the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) stated that coral reefs are among “the most beautiful, biologically diverse and delicate ecosystems in the world,” vital to maintaining the food supply and protecting shorelines of low-lying island nations.

The UNEP estimates that about 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed through climate change, over fishing and tourism. An additional 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs are threatened with extinction from these factors.

Uniquely Resistant to Climate Change

The Red Sea’s coral reefs have been found to be uniquely resistant to the climate change that has already wreaked havoc on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, one of the natural wonders of the world, as well as nearly every other reef location around the world.

Research conducted by the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Israel’s southern city of Eilat found that coral in the Gulf of Aqaba, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, whose coastline divides Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has had no bleaching effects at all.

This remarkable resistance to rising water temperatures and acidification is credited by Fine to a giant natural selection that he believes occurred thousands of years ago. As noted in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers believe that, as glaciers melted towards the end of the ice age, reefs recolonized in southern parts of the sea where temperatures ran exceedingly high.

The corals that withstood the extreme temperatures migrated north where conditions were cooler. This “survival of the fittest” is believed to have created an unusual tolerance for changes in temperature.

Fine explains that the “winners of the climate change lottery” live in the Red Sea and only show stress from heat when the temperature rises six degrees above the summer maximum sea temperature.

However, even the Red Sea coral reefs face destruction due to fish-farming, agricultural run-off, industrial and urban pollution and seawater desalination projects.

This is one of the main purposes of the partnership between the unusual group of scientists. These researchers believe that sharing knowledge and regional coordination will benefit each of the represented countries as well as coral reefs worldwide.

The participants in the research center include those who study oceanography, biology, genetics, ecology, geology, nature conservancy, civil and environmental engineering, and more.

Bringing Peace a Bit Closer?

As the death of coral reefs carry dire consequences for wildlife, beach-front homes, and the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people worldwide who fish and work in tourism, studying how best to protect these beautiful creatures may not only help the environment and so many people, but might also bring peace in the Middle East a bit closer.

As Jacqueline De La Cour, operations manager fro the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations’s Coral Reef Watch stated, “Coral refuges show us that species can adapt. It gives us hope.”