Canary fish

Posted: April 14, 2017 at 8:52 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

The thrill, for anyone who loves science, is the idea of discovering alien and unexplored possibilities. Planets with the potential for life. Millions of species yet to be observed. Technology that can change every aspect of our lives. Secrets from the past. The mysteries of our own minds and bodies.

The less information there is, the more curiosity. We crave the spaces between current and future knowledge where our imaginations can fill in the void.

Personally, I’ve always wondered about the depths of the oceans, teeming with life so different from what we know on land it may as well be alien.

Ten years ago, I swam in the Coral Sea, snorkeling, and experiencing the brilliance of undersea life in a part of the world where animals who would stoke our imaginations abound.

Despite advancements in undersea technology, the gap between what we now know and what we still have to learn about the ocean, and the majority of life on our planet, is vast. It leaves a great deal to the imagination, and that certainly is exciting.

But for scientists, science is not just about discovering what we don’t know. It’s also about focusing on what we do know—working on solutions for issues that affect us today, alerting the public about the ways in which we are affecting our world, and what we can do about it.

Today, scientists are telling us the planet is warming. The ice at the world’s ends is melting, the water is rising. And the delicate ecosystem of coral life is a canary in a massive coal mine.

Except after death, the canary yellow in a coral reef does not persist.

When water temperatures rise, the tiny flora and fauna that live alongside corals and give them their vibrant colours get stressed and leave. The corals turn white, or ‘bleached’. Starved of their normal food source, they become vulnerable to disease. They can recover from this state, but it doesn’t mean they always do.

Last year, a coral bleaching led to the death of about 20 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Australia. Photographs circulated of grey and white reefs, eerily still, devoid of colours and fish.

This year, the phenomenon recurred. It does not usually happen back to back.

Scientists are using all the tools they already have to try to help the reefs regain their health. They are letting the public know this is happening, and if more is not done, more of this natural wonder could disappear. Colours turn white, white turns grey.

And in death, like the loss of colour, so do we lose the possibility for future knowledge. So many of the discoveries yet to be made about life underwater will never happen if that life ceases to be.

There are, of course, more pressing, more insidious reasons to take action. Nothing in this planet’s ecology takes place in a vacuum. Overfishing, water and air pollution don’t just affect one ecosystem in one part of the world. Eventually, it affects everything, for better or worse.

But perhaps that’s too much to think about. Think instead about the death of the imagination. What will make us wonder, once we’ve killed off possibility?