BAA ATOLL, MALDIVES
Our flippers propel us through an aquatic Pompeii, a once thriving, kaleidoscopic jungle of coral now frozen in grimy suspended animation. We pass the monochrome remains of sprawling table corals, stretched out from a narrow base like giant mushrooms, now gradually teetering toward the seabed. There are grey formations reaching up in clusters of muscular fingers, others like bundles of twigs gathered from a forest floor, more sections that have degraded into amorphous lumps of rubble.
Once every couple of minutes Sendi spots a tiny sign of life − a fist-sized colony of coral, obstinately alive − and he shoots down to photograph it. But those moments come as rare respite from the blanket of lifeless limestone, caked in algae and bathed in the sand formed by its own disintegration.
Back in our boat, rocking gently in the 25-mile-wide lagoon of Baa Atoll, I ask Sendi, the Maldives’ most experienced and best-known diver, whether the reef shows any sign of recovery. A slight man with any hint of excess fat lost to his forty-seven years in the water, known to no one by his legal name Hussain Rasheed, Sendi is usually a sprite-like source of mischief, sea-blue eyes gleaming over glasses perched on the end of his nose, crunching out conspiratorial sniggers between puffs on a Camel Light. But now he looks serious.
‘It’s like a graveyard,’ he says, seawater still dripping down his cheeks into a dense white beard. ‘Like a horror film.’
Sendi swam through these waters when they were still carpeted with coral polyps, minuscule animals shaped like sea anemones that cluster together in colonies. Beneath themselves the polyps formed the rock-hard reef, a shared exoskeleton of limestone that broadened and thickened with every generation. Each polyp had its own tiny hollow on the reef and sheltered there during daylight, before extending minute tentacles at night to snare passing plankton.
The reef ’s riot of colour came not from the transparent polyps but from their life partners, the zooxanthellae – single-celled beings that lived inside the polyps’ tissues. The corals got most of their nutrition from sugars generated by their unicellular lodgers, which in turn received shelter and the carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis. It was a relationship of stunning beauty and simplicity, forged over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. But on this and countless other reefs across the Maldives, it came to a brutal end over a few weeks in 2016, a year when the global average temperature hit yet another modern record.
The underwater tragedy unfolded before Sendi’s eyes. ‘It’s a strange feeling for a diver, to swim in a lagoon that’s as warm as bath water,’ he says. ‘And then the coral just turned white.’
As the Maldivian summer began that March, sea temperatures surged well above 30C, far beyond the corals’ narrow comfort zone. The polyps went into a state of stress, and the convulsions of their tiny tissues expelled the zooxanthellae into the ocean. For some days, the corals clung to life, using their tentacles in a desperate nocturnal hunt for passing scraps of nutrients. The now colourless polyps had all but vanished before they died, leaving as a ghostly legacy tonnes of colourless, intricately fashioned limestone.
Nearly two centuries before Sendi and I sat bobbing in the lagoon, with $1,000-a-night resorts in all directions, a 42-year-old English sailor named Robert Moresby passed through it in the ageing sloop-of-war Benares. He was on a mission of high national importance: to map the Maldivian reefs.
The motivation was purely economic − the jagged reefs were a grievous risk to ships plying the burgeoning Indian trade routes. But the work made a major contribution to the science of coral systems, providing crucial data for Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking first book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. The Maldives’ round atolls were the result of volcanic mountains gradually sinking into the sea floor, Darwin wrote in the 1842 tome. The corals surrounding the mountains had grown upwards, keeping a constant depth from the sea’s surface, their limestone base getting thicker every year – even after the mountains in the middle had long vanished under the ocean.
Darwin’s work provided a basis for all modern research on this subject. Seismic mapping of the Maldivian atolls has shown that they rest on limestone foundations more than a mile deep, built by successive generations of corals over fifty million years. Contemporary scientists have confirmed, too, Darwin’s assessment of the immense amount of sand that passes from the digestive tracts of parrotfish, whose sharp teeth bite off pieces of limestone as they scour reefs for algae. Most of the stunning white sand in those slick Maldivian resort photographs, it turns out, is fish shit.
Yet there was one crucial angle that Darwin missed: climate change. Much more than volcanic subsidence, we now know, the Maldivian atolls were shaped by the huge sea level rise that occurred as the last ice age drew to a close. Over fifteen millennia from 20,000 bc, the oceans rose by nearly 120 metres – and the corals rose with them. As the temperature stabilised, so did the sea level – and as the centuries passed, the 1,100 islands we now call the Maldives were formed from fragments of coral skeleton collecting in huge mounds within the circular reef atolls, an idyllic home for human settlers who first arrived about 3,500 years ago.
But even at the time of Moresby’s survey, it seems Maldivians were painfully aware of their precarious geography. ‘A singular tradition exists among them,’ a sailor named Boyce wrote in his chronicle of the mission, ‘that all their islands are to sink down into the sea, and that large ships will sail over the places they now occupy.’
Whatever the origin of that tradition, it uncannily anticipated the threat that now looms over the Maldives’ long-term future. Today, man-made warming has begun to drive sea level rise that will be even faster than that which ended the last ice age. And unlike during that prehistoric episode, reefs almost devoid of living coral will be unable to grow in line with the rising oceans, leaving the sandy islands within the atolls increasingly exposed.
The 2016 disaster in Baa Atoll was part of the worst wave of coral bleaching in recorded history, which swept the tropical oceans from 2014 to 2017, devastating colonies from Florida to the South China Sea and killing half of Australia’s 1,400-mile Great Barrier Reef. Covering two thirds of the earth’s surface, the ocean has absorbed most of the heat created by carbon emissions, which has increased its average surface temperature by about 1°C over the past century. With coral’s extreme sensitivity to small temperature rises, bleaching − a once rare phenomenon − is occurring with increasing violence and frequency. Reefs are now providing a spectacular first look at the devastation that climate change is set to wreak on global ecosystems.
In a landmark report a few months before my arrival in the Maldives, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global warming was on course to kill off virtually all the world’s reefs by 2100. ‘The predictions of back-to-back bleaching have become the reality,’ the IPCC said. Warming of 2°C − a level that will be easily surpassed this century on current trends − would cause the death of 99 per cent of the world’s corals, it went on. Even with a rise of 1.5° − a target requiring hefty emissions cuts, now being chased by more ambitious governments − up to 90 per cent of the world’s coral would die, the report warned, a disaster that would ‘remove resources and increase poverty levels across the world’s tropical coastlines’.
All ecosystems will be affected by climate change, but these dazzling underwater jungles are set to vanish at a brutal speed, virtually an instant on the epic timescales of coral reefs. It means the loss of some of our planet’s most astounding beauty, and a withering economic impact. Reefs support a quarter of the world’s marine species and millions of human livelihoods – notably in the Caribbean, and the 2 million square mile ‘Coral Triangle’ that runs from Malaysia to the Solomon Islands.
No place on earth has more to lose from this catastrophe than the Maldives, a country literally built on coral. The reefs have offered vital protection for the islands against tidal waves and storm surges, reducing the threat of flooding and erosion. Maldivians credit them with saving the country from total devastation when a massive tsunami struck the region in December 2004. But now the reefs that created and guarded the Maldives are dying, beneath a steadily rising ocean swept by increasingly powerful storms. For this nation of 400,000 islanders, the world’s lowest-lying state, it could prove a fatal cocktail.
On a narrow street in central Malé, the Maldivian capital, I edge my way through an angrily stuttering flow of scooters and pickup trucks towards a modest commercial building that looks to have been under siege. Flanked by a DHL office and a baby products shop, its windows have been smashed and hastily patched, and the glass in its front door replaced with plywood. From its yellow walls protrude two loudspeakers, and between them hangs a banner covered with photographs of politicians, centred on the face of the man I have come to see: Mohamed Nasheed.
As the Maldives’ president, Nasheed became the first political superstar of the global climate fight with his emotional appeals for action at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. His most celebrated move came a few weeks before the climate conference when he and his cabinet donned scuba gear to hold an underwater crisis meeting. The stunt highlighted the danger that the rising ocean would consume the Maldives, where 80 per cent of the country is less than 1 metre above sea level − the height of a 4-year-old child.
Just two years after Copenhagen, Nasheed was ousted in what he called a military coup, and was imprisoned before fleeing into exile. But he got a second chance. I meet him two months after he walked with cheering supporters through the streets of Malé, returning home after a shock election result. Banned from running for the presidency himself, Nasheed had thrown his weight behind his childhood friend Ibrahim Solih, who swept to power. As the leader of Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party, Nasheed is now back in a position of high influence – and he is resuming his battle to save his country from climate change.
Upstairs from the battered entrance − testament to the fiery tensions of the election campaign − Nasheed is at a computer in the MDP’s conference room, neatly turned out in silver cufflinks and a tie to match the party’s yellow banners. It’s a few weeks after he made a high-profile return to international climate negotiations, leading the Maldives’ delegation to the UN global conference in Katowice, Poland, where he grabbed media attention by proclaiming that his country was ‘not prepared to die’.
But a decade after he hit the global climate stage, Nasheed is horrified by how little has changed. For all the promises from world leaders, carbon emissions have continued to rise, keeping us firmly on course for dangerous levels of warming. Meanwhile, scientific research on the extent of that danger has been forging ahead – nowhere more so than on the world’s ailing coral reefs.
Even as he keeps trying to fend off the rising sea, pleading with the world to cut its carbon emissions, Nasheed knows he also needs to step up the Maldives’ readiness for climate change. And the most important way to do that, he has now concluded, is to save the coral.
‘Sea level rise is one thing,’ he tells me, his gaze intense behind his rimless spectacles. ‘But sea level rise without the reef is a disaster.’
Before heading to Poland, Nasheed made a visit to Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island, where the British billionaire promised to support his plans for a new organisation to protect the Maldivian coral. Nasheed leaps from his seat to show me a presentation on artificial reefs, with coral growing on pyramidical 3D-printed frames, which he hopes to install across the Maldives to protect islands from surging waves. Such initiatives risk being blown up on the runway, however, if the fledgling corals are devastated by bleaching events in the warming waters. So the time has come, Nasheed believes, to ‘look at how we may be able to genetically interfere’.
Coral spawning is surely the animal kingdom’s most spectacular sex. Once a year, soon after a full moon, a reef explodes in a synchronised flurry of eggs and sperm, propelled in tiny pearl-shaped bundles from the polyps’ flexing mouths, rising in a multicoloured upside-down blizzard to the sea surface. There, over the course of a week, they fertilise in their millions, the larvae at last sinking to the sea floor in search of hard surfaces to latch onto. But for all its splendour, the natural mating process looks insufficient to ensure the species’ survival, and the recent disasters have added new energy to a wave of scientific intervention.
After the latest round of bleaching, researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science went diving on the Great Barrier Reef in search of living coral, which they detached with hammers and chisels and took back to their labs. By interbreeding these unusually hardy survivors, they’re hoping to create new hybrid strains that will be better able to cope with the twenty-first century’s rising sea temperature. In Hawaii, scientists have been subjecting corals to near-death experiences in tanks, exposing them to temperatures just short of lethally warm, to see if they can be gradually conditioned to survive such ordeals. At California’s Stanford University, researchers have started using the newly developed CRISPR technology to edit individual sections of the coral genome.
Nasheed’s new foundation will step up efforts to put this emerging science into practice, and build ties between scientists and governments of countries that have the most to lose from the devastation of the reefs. It might seem hard to believe that this work could do much to temper the epic destruction forecast by one study after another, given the enormous size of the threatened reefs and the extensive warming already locked into the global climate system. But Nasheed is still brimming with the zeal of the freedom fighter he once was. In his youth, he spent eighteen months in solitary confinement for activism against the country’s long-running dictatorship. Guards on his prison island put crushed glass in his food and left him chained to a chair in the blazing sun for days on end. Having survived to become his country’s first freely elected leader, he now brings his old defiant fervour to the battle to save an entire global ecosystem, which may hold the key to his country’s survival.
‘I have a view that you don’t have to succumb, you don’t have to give in,’ Nasheed tells me. ‘None of these reefs have to die. We still have a window of opportunity.’
This is an excerpt from Chapter 5: Maldives of Simon Mundy's new book "Race for Tomorrow" published by William Collins.
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