Turning point: Reef inspector – Nature.com

Since 2015, Terry Hughes has monitored coral bleaching — a result of rising ocean temperatures — at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. When reefs bleach, they expel crucial algae and can die. Hughes describes how, as director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, he is trying to save the reef, vital for marine life.

What have the past two years been like?

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Andrew Rankin

It’s been a whirlwind. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology have each developed near-real-time maps to forecast the likelihood of mass bleaching. We saw it in 1998 and 2002. We knew by May 2015 that there could be a third event. The National Coral Bleaching task force — consisting of 300 researchers from universities and government agencies — formed in November 2015 to coordinate research into a potential third mass bleaching. We booked research stations, vessels and aeroplanes. I spent March to April 2016 and this past March aerially surveying the bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef.

Was aerial surveillance a risky approach?

Yes. That’s why we also put 100 divers in the water in March and April 2016, who confirmed that our scoring of the extent of bleaching was highly accurate. We published a paper on that data — featured on the cover of the 16 March Nature issue (T. P. Hughes et al. Nature 543, 373377; 2017) — and then, two days after its publication, we boarded an aeroplane to assess coral bleaching for the second year in a row.

Can you publish findings before the next field season?

No. The back-to-back bleaching we are now seeing has overtaken our capacity to keep up.

What is the most difficult part of the research?

The uncertainty. We hoped that a bleaching event wouldn’t happen, and there was a period in 2015 when the forecast said that it was unlikely. But that was followed by a period of rapid heating, so we had warning of only 2–3 weeks before we needed to conduct reef-bleaching surveys. Luckily, I had kept the bookings for the boats, so it was easy to fire up again.

How do you have such flexibility?

I direct a Centre of Excellence, a consortium of four universities funded by the Australian Research Council, equivalent to the US National Science Foundation. Our graduate programme has 210 PhD students. Because we have a seven-year block of funding, we can set up ambitious projects.

What was your best move as director?

Since 2005, when we established the centre, I’ve hired more than 100 postdocs. And I’ve hired more social scientists and people who work on the dynamics of institutions, governance, legal frameworks and international treaties. Knowing everything about the biology of coral reefs won’t improve their governance.

Does the dire situation affect student interest?

Most of our PhD students and postdocs come from abroad. People are galvanized by this problem and the urgent need to address it. Still, it has the potential to be overwhelming. Many PhD projects have been disrupted by the heavy reef mortality.

Is there an upside?

It is, dare I say it, a research opportunity. I don’t want to come across as taking advantage of ecological disaster, but we are learning a lot. In Australia, we have a lot of science around bleaching events but lack science-based policy responses. The elephant in the room is climate change.

Do you focus more on outreach to the public or to policymakers?

Both. We routinely give government briefings. In addition, when the National Coral Bleaching task force that I formed began gathering data, we put out press releases and blogposts about bleaching. We’ve taken some flak over releasing findings that haven’t yet been peer reviewed. But we will continue to put out important preliminary results that we feel the government or the public should know about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.