View all news

Inspired science brings hope for marine and reef systems

Marine scientist diving underwater with coral


Michael Jacobson
26 October 2023

In the era of climate change, Southern Cross University marine scientists, ecologists and oceanographers are turning inspired thinking into brilliant innovation, leading efforts to preserve and restore precious marine environments.

A woman on a beach smiling at the camera

Inspired science brings hope for marine and reef systems

Southern Cross University PhD candidate Meryl Larkin may be early in her research career, but she is already creating knowledge that might claw a precious and threatened coral back from the path to extinction.

Scientists led by Meryl have for the first time mapped the reproductive strategies and life cycle of the endangered purple cauliflower coral, Dendronephthya australis.

Endemic to south-eastern Australia – with the largest populations historically found in the Port Stephens estuary in New South Wales – the purple cauliflower is one of 100 priority species listed on the Federal Government’s Threatened Species Strategy.

The species has been all but wiped out in the estuary during the past three years due to the devastating impact of sediment shifts, flooding and other factors. Ramifications extend to its role as vital habitat for other species, including the endangered White’s seahorse and baby snapper.

It is therefore remarkable that such a dire situation should now inspire optimism, thanks to scientific breakthroughs including new IVF methods devised by Meryl – with advice and support from coral biologists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) – to produce larvae in the lab and successfully reintroduce coral babies into the wild.

Meryl’s work has been co-funded and supervised by the University and New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, with ongoing work funded by the NSW Environmental Trust.

“Our discoveries open new doors for conservation strategies, including potential restoration efforts,” she says. “It has given us real hope we can keep this coral off the extinction list.”

Southern Cross University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Academic Capability), Professor Mary Spongberg, says Meryl’s work is a clear example of the University’s intent to harness its distinct research strengths to create a better world.

“The other aspects of Meryl’s research – about which we are really proud – are that we are solving these problems in deep partnership with others, while also providing strong, supportive pathways for early career researchers,” says Professor Spongberg.

The breakthrough research Meryl is doing today joins a Southern Cross University tradition going back decades in seeking to understand and meet the challenges facing the world’s oceans and reefs. It also connects seamlessly with the work of globally recognised Distinguished Professor Peter Harrison who pioneered the Coral IVF breeding process and whose commitment to marine research is now in its fifth decade.

Much hope is being placed on Coral IVF and other processes to achieve large-scale reef recovery around the world, although nowhere is the need more pressing than on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Home to 3,000 individual reef systems and an incredible array of marine life, four mass coral bleaching events in the past seven years have provided stark evidence of the Reef’s vulnerability. Despite UNESCO’s decision in August 2023 to keep the Reef off its World Heritage in Danger list, it remains under serious threat.

“Meryl’s work is a clear example of the University’s intent to harness its distinct research strengths to create a better world.”

Restoration, protection and sustainability are at the heart of marine science at Southern Cross University, as evidenced by the launch of the Reefs and Oceans Research Impact Cluster to consolidate and accelerate solutions for underwater ecosystems worldwide. The science happening within the Cluster is imaginative and inventive.

For instance, at the University’s National Marine Science Centre (NMSC) in Coffs Harbour, Dr Daniel Harrison is experimenting with ‘cloud brightening’ technology to help clouds reflect solar energy away from the reef.

When scaled up, this technique may be able to cool ocean temperatures and reduce bleaching. The project is part of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, a partnership with the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

“Marine cloud brightening sees microscopic sea water droplets sprayed into the air, creating a plume of salt crystals which interacts with cloud to reflect solar energy away from the reef waters when heat stress is at its maximum,” says Dr Harrison.

Following more than 30 years of theoretical work, Southern Cross University is the first in the world to take brightening technology outdoors. This has been with the support of local Indigenous communities and with permits granted by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Cloud brightening on the Great Barrier Reef
Cloud brightening on the Great Barrier Reef.

“Fogging” is another technique under trial, which mimics the effects of fog by adding seawater to the air from a generator on moored platforms or vessels. It has the potential to protect reefs from solar radiation for short periods, potentially reducing coral bleaching in a cost-effective way while buying precious time for longer-term climate change mitigation.

Mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand for the NMSC’s Dr Emily Howells, who is investigating the capacity of reef-building corals to adapt to climate change. In focus are corals with a genetic predisposition for thermal tolerance and, by extension, how this innate adaptivity might be harnessed for broader coral health and sustainability.

Dr Howells is collaborating with AIMS in Townsville and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudia Arabia.lves taking samples from hundreds of corals that are tagged with their own GPS identifier. Variation in heat tolerance – and how much can be explained genetically – is measured and ranked across the Great Barrier Reef.

Oceans research cluster is a exciting new  initiative at Southern Cross University,  
bringing together academics across multiple  faculties of science engineering arts and  
health and looking at the changes that  are occurring in our reefs and oceans,  
all of the way from the tropics to Antarctica.  One of the really unique things about the cluster  
is that we're really focused on looking for  solutions. Projects focusing on helping the  
Great Barrier Reef, looking at techniques to cool  and shade The Reef to protect from bleaching.  
Techniques and technologies to restore degraded  reefs by repopulating them with corals and also  
techniques to enhance the thermal tolerance of  coral so that they'll be more well adapted to  
the future climate. We have projects looking  at restoring oyster reefs, finding novel  
approaches for the sustainable management  of fisheries. We have projects looking at  
the behaviour of marine mammals, such as whales  and dolphins in the open ocean and also in  
our reef ecosystems. Projects based on airborne  sciences, using drones and aircraft to conduct  
habitat mapping, through to using drones to carry  sensors over the Great Barrier Reef to study the  
atmosphere and the role of the atmosphere in  the coral bleaching events that we're seeing.  
We're very lucky to have the National Marine  Science Centre here in Coffs Harbour, located  
right at the separation zone of the East  Australian current and in a global warming hot  
spot. The research that we do in the reefs and  oceans research cluster is so critical because  
the pace of change in the oceans is now so fast  that a lot of our natural ecosystems on reefs and  
and also in the deeper ocean can no longer adapt  and keep pace with the change. Oceans cover  
70 per cent of the planet and we rely on the oceans  for life itself. The oceans have absorbed 90  
per cent of the excess heat that we've generated  through climate change and they take up about 25  
of our carbon emissions. If life in the ocean  is suffering, then we're all suffering.

Throughout the Reefs and Oceans Research Impact Cluster, no idea is off the table, even if some might seem counter-intuitive at first glance – such as adding industrial matter to the oceans to mitigate climate change. All becomes clear as Associate Professor Kai Schulz explains the process of Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement (OAE) for carbon dioxide removal and storage.

“OAE involves the controlled addition of crushed minerals or suitable alkaline agents from industrial processes into the ocean to mitigate climate change,” he says. “Next to rock minerals, industrial inorganic by-products have the capacity to be an effective, ocean-based conduit for carbon capture and storage.

“The ocean already absorbs more atmospheric carbon dioxide than anything else and perhaps, through strategies like OAE, it might be helped to do even more, although we must not proceed without full knowledge of what it means for the oceans themselves and their delicate and complex ecosystems.”

Associate Professor Schulz’s research is part of a five-year, $11 million partnership between Southern Cross University, University of Tasmania, University of Hamburg, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research (Kiel), and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Funding has come from the Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement R&D Program, a multi-funder effort incubated by the Carbon to Sea Initiative

Driving these and other projects is a cohort of Southern Cross University scientists with a profound understanding of, and concern for, the planet’s reefs and oceans. Their efforts are fostering environmental transformation via protection, restoration and sustainability, while also supporting the hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on these systems.