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A diplomatic ecosystem to save corals in the Red Sea

A diplomatic ecosystem to save corals in the Red Sea

EPFL’s Transnational Red Sea Center mission was able to confirm that there is practically no bleaching among the corals of the Gulf of Tadjourah, Djibouti. Guilhem Bench Prandi

A team of scientists dedicated to the study of corals in the Red Sea, which are particularly resistant to global warming, has just completed an expedition to Djibouti. This mission, piloted by EPFL, appears emblematic of Switzerland’s efforts in the field of science diplomacy.

This content was published on October 25, 2022 – 10:15

When Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835, in front of the coral reefs, he thought he detected a “paradox”. These crystalline waters are in his eyes synonymous with poverty in terms of nutrients. “So, how is such an abundance of life possible?” he doubtless wonders, stroking his long beard, frowning. What the English naturalist does not know is that corals have a superpower. Although belonging to the animal kingdom, they are capable of photosynthesis. Or almost. The merit in fact goes to the zooxanthellae, which provide them with this service. These unicellular algae live within the tissues of coral polyps. They provide them with color and food.

Zooxanthellae are a gateway. They allow solar energy to penetrate the marine ecosystem. This energy is crucial for the production of oxygen, mucus and other essential organic compounds in the growth of bacteria. Bacteria that are eaten by more complex life forms, which themselves become food for higher organisms, and so on. The characteristic configuration of the corals also provides shelter and habitat for many species. All this makes coral reefs one of the richest ecosystems in planetary biodiversity, comparable in this respect to tropical forests.

Coral reefs in the Red Sea are particularly interesting, says biochemist Anders Meibom, because they may be the only ones still alive at the end of this century. At the end of September, the researcher returned to the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL) after a two-week expedition to the Gulf of Tadjourah, in Djibouti.

The latest in a series of missions centered on the study of the coral reef in the company of researchers from the region. If global warming is a major threat to these ecosystems, the professor is now optimistic about the corals of the Red Sea.

Resistant corals

An increase in water temperature of about two degrees Celsius, for example during a prolonged heat wave, usually destroys the symbiosis between coral polyps and zooxanthellae, causing bleaching and – if the situation persists – death. coral. This phenomenon is currently observed on most of the planet’s coral reefs, but very little in the Red Sea. In the northern part of this sea, corals do not bleach even when subjected to a five degree increase in water temperatureExternal link.

Anders Meibom explains that this resistance is due to the fact that over the millennia, these corals have spread in the Red Sea from the south to the north, to the Gulf of Aqaba, where their particular thermal resistance was noted there is a decadeExternal link. “The further north you move within the Red Sea system, the colder the water. But the biology of the corals that live there retains the memory of the much warmer conditions of the southern part of the Red Sea,” says the biochemist.

Technology and data sharing

There is good news emerging from the September expedition. Scientists do not observe any trace of bleaching among the corals of the Gulf of Tadjoura in Djibouti, in a region where the average water temperature is one of the highest north of the Red Sea. “Over the past few centuries, the water temperature has also increased by one or two degrees in Djibouti. The fact that the corals are still not suffering from it is wonderful, it’s a great relief”, launches Anders Meibom, who describes these reefs as “the fathers and mothers of all the corals of the Red Sea”. Studying their biology to understand what makes them so strong is therefore of prime importance.

It also seems crucial to decipher the functioning of the Red Sea ecosystem as a whole, the ultimate goal of the mission of the Transnational Red Sea Center (TRSC), the EPFL research center created in 2019 and directed by Anders Meibom .

The TRSC project is the first of this scale to have state-of-the-art technology in terms of genetic analysis and 3D mapping and to make its results available to everyone, according to the principles of Open Science. The data will be used in particular by the countries bordering the Red Sea to decide on the best measures to take to protect their reefs against threats such as pollution, intensive fishing and mass tourism.

Part of the mission involves 3D mapping of coral reefs using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. Guilhem Bench Prandi

Anders Meibom hopes that the quality of the data collected will be able to convince other States to take part in the project – Egypt in particular and its 1500 km of coastline on the Red Sea (4500 km in total), a country where hold the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP27) from November 6 to 18.

Gift for an ambassador

Ecologically, the Red Sea is a unique, closely interconnected system. The same cannot be said from a geopolitical angle. Most of the countries in the region are experiencing some degree of instability and their relations with each other are even more complicated.

For its smooth running, the research mission cannot do without the diplomatic work carried out by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) as part of its science diplomacy strategy (see box). Currently, Jordan, Israel, Sudan and Djibouti are participating in the project. “The Swiss ambassadors in the region and the contacts they establish are fantastic. It’s really a team of super professional diplomats,” assures Anders Meibom.

An enthusiasm reflected in the words of the Swiss ambassador to the Republic of Djibouti, Pietro Mona. “When I heard about the project, I said to myself: for me, as an ambassador, it’s a great gift. It responds to the interests that the president of the country [Ismail Omar Guelleh] flagged me as a priority and allows us to open up new avenues of cooperation.”

Science diplomacy

Science, by definition neutral and apolitical, can serve diplomacy (Science for Diplomacy) by contributing to the strengthening of relations between States. International scientific cooperation promotes international relations, both bilateral and multilateral. The FDFA attaches particular importance to the inclusion of scientific studies in its diplomatic work, especially in the multilateral field.

In this context, the FDFA supports platform projects aimed at strengthening the position of international Geneva.

Example with the GESDA (Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator). The mission of this new organization founded in 2019 is to anticipate and understand scientific breakthroughs so that they can ultimately serve the common good and help solve the great challenges facing humanity.

Last March, the Swiss government opted to continue funding this foundation to the tune of 3 million francs per year until 2032.

The TRSC project on the study of corals was one of the protagonists of the GESDA summit last year. This year’s was held in Geneva from October 12 to 14.

Source: FDFA

End of insertion

This small African country (less than a million inhabitants) – characterized by relative political stability and self-proclaimed “Country of Peace in the Horn of Africa” ​​- aims to profile itself in the protection of the environment and corals in particular. A long-term collaboration between Djiboutian ministries, universities and research centers with an institution of international prestige such as EPFL is therefore of great interest.

Safeguarding coral reefs is also of economic importance to all Red Sea countries, particularly in terms of tourism revenue. A sector which currently represents only 3% of Djibouti’s GDP, but which the country intends to develop, in particular through cooperation with Switzerland, indicates the ambassador.

Altruism, but not only

The commitment of the FDFA is not disinterested. Good relations with the countries of the Horn of Africa and the stability of the region are important for Switzerland. “Scientific diplomacy projects strengthen the visibility of our country, but above all the bilateral relations that we need in very varied contexts”, explains Pietro Mona, who refers in particular to Switzerland’s participation in the UN Security Council.

The diplomat goes on to say that this type of initiative not only has an altruistic aim, but that it is in line with Switzerland’s well-understood interests in various fields such as security, economic cooperation and, in particular, the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The case of Djibouti therefore appears to be emblematic of the virtuous circle of scientific diplomacy. Just as zooxanthellae function as an access point for solar energy within reefs, science, in principle neutral and apolitical, can open the door to diplomatic dialogue which, in turn, creates the framework conditions conducive to further research. An ecosystem of multilateral relationships that could prove valuable in the face of global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss.

Translated from Italian by Pierre-François Besson

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In accordance with JTI standards

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