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Young scientist watching the Ningaloo

Media release

Young Perth scientist Emily Twiggs is using Ningaloo Reef’s history to help predict the future of coral reefs in a constantly changing world.

Ningaloo is well-known as one of the best natural laboratories to monitor the response of coral reefs to changes in the Earth’s climate. Its pristine waters and untouched corals may provide a clear picture of the impact climate change can have on the natural environment.

That’s why Miss Twiggs of Floreat, a fourth-year Applied Geology PhD researcher at Curtin University of Technology’s Western Australian School of Mines, is gathering data on the Ningaloo Reef, which will contribute to the monitoring of the impact of environmental change on the reef.

“Reefs in general and the Ningaloo in particular, provide an excellent barometer with which we can monitor a changing environment,” she said.

“Corals can be quite resilient to environmental change. When sea-levels rise or fall, corals can often alter their growth patterns to respond.

“But when change is really rapid, or there are multiple factors, then there is the potential for entire reefs to die out.

“Because it is largely untouched by human activity, the Ningaloo Reef is one of the better coral reefs to study the impact of climate change.

“This is especially true when compared with examples like the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, which has also been largely impacted by human activity.”

According to Miss Twiggs, the greatest threats known to coral reefs during climate change are rapid increases in sea-level, increased ocean acidity, a significant rise in sea surface temperature and more intense storm activity.

“Unfortunately, if current estimates on climate change are correct, all four of these factors are likely to occur together” she said.

“This would likely place reefs such as the Ningaloo at risk.”

To find out what impact environmental change can have on the reef, Miss Twiggs and her Supervisor Associate Professor Lindsay Collins have spent several years studying reef core samples of the eastern Ningaloo Reef within the Exmouth Gulf.

Using these samples, they have been able to look back at the reef’s growth history over several thousand years, finding out when the reef started to grow and how it responded to environmental change including sea-level fluctuations, coastal flooding and erosion, and cyclone activity.

They have also discovered that this section of the Ningaloo Reef stopped growing due to a combination of stressful conditions around 6000 years ago.

“The information we are gathering can be used as an important starting point in the assessment of future pressures on the Ningaloo Reef and coral reefs globally,” Miss Twiggs said.

Curtin’s research on the Ningaloo Reef has been financially supported by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) as part of the Ningaloo Reef Program.