The Age, 16th April 2008

Silver bubbles pop to the surface as a snorkeler glides over a colourful coral reef, bright fish speeding to safety in its protective fronds. Experts say this small Horn of Africa nation has some of the most pristine coral reefs left anywhere worldwide, a “global hotspot” for marine diversity supporting thousands of species.

Known also as Green Island for its thick cover of mangroves, Sheikh Seid is only one of 354 largely uninhabited islands scattered along Eritrea’s southern Red Sea desert coast, many part of Eritrea’s Dahlak archipelago. The remote reefs are exciting scientists, who see in Eritrea’s waters a chance of hope amidst increasingly bleak predictions for the future of coral reefs — if sea temperatures rise as forecast due to global climate change.

Unlike the deeper, cooler waters elsewhere in the Red Sea, Eritrea’s large expanses of shallow — and therefore hotter — waters have created corals uniquely capable of coping with extremes of heat, scientists say.

“Eritrea has the most temperature tolerant corals in the world,”

Said marine expert Dr John ‘Charlie’ Veron, dubbed the “king of coral” for his discovery of more than a fifth of all coral species.

“That bodes well, for climate change is set to decimate coral reefs.”

Leading scientists warn that most reefs — vital for the massive levels of marine life that depend upon them and a crucial component of coastal economies — will be largely extinct by the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed.

They say many will be killed by mass “bleaching” and irreversible acidification of seawater caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into surface waters, with at least 20 per cent of coral reefs worldwide already feared lost.

But with Eritrea’s surface water in summer an average bathwater temperature of 32.5 C (90.5 F) — reportedly peaking at a sweltering 37C (98.6 F) — corals here have evolved to survive in an environment that would kill others elsewhere in the world. (Read More)

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