Coral bleaching crisis personifies climate change in the documentary Chasing Coral

By Teri West

Half of the world’s coral has died in the last 30 years, according to the documentary Chasing Coral, which the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science screened in Stamp Student Union in November.

The film debuted on Netflix in July and follows a team determined to use time-lapse photography to document coral bleaching, a phenomenon which has plagued reefs worldwide in recent decades due to warming waters. When ocean temperatures in areas surrounding a reef increase by about 1 ½ – two degrees, the coral may turn white, entering a weakened state in which it is vulnerable to disease. It can die just a few weeks later.

Corals recently experienced their third global bleaching event, which lasted three years.

The university film screening included a panel discussion with the Emmy-winning director, a NOAA coral reef scientist and a climate scientist. The researchers presented ways that scientists are working to preserve coral in anticipation of its natural population being eradicated.

One successful strategy has been to grow corals and place them into existing ocean reefs, said Mark Eakin, a coral reef specialist at NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch who is featured in the film. Taking small pieces and allowing them to merge together has been effective for growing those that are typically slow to reach sexual maturity. Scientists are also trying to identify and crossbreed corals that are more resilient in warmer water temperatures.

Thomas Ackerman, the director of the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington, added that scientists are strategizing ways to counter the ocean warming itself. One possibility is producing a reflective cloud cover over areas with reefs.

The documentary’s director Jeff Orlowski sees filmmaking as a way of spreading awareness about critical environmental changes. His 2012 film Chasing Ice similarly uses time-lapse techniques to document the degradation of glaciers.

“That got myself and our team sort of fascinated by this question of how do you create visual evidence of climate change – not just trying to share the statistics and the numbers and the charts, but how do you make it more accessible to the average viewer?” Orlowski said.

In addition to the time-lapse imagery, the film centers the experience of Zach Rago, a passionate member of the photography team who grew emotionally fatigued documenting decay in the Great Barrier Reef.

It is important to make environmental crises visual and emotional, Orlowski said. When a student shared that he cried during the film, Orlowski asked if anyone else in the audience had, excited by the showing of hands.

Eakin initially entered the field because of a love for the biological beauty of reefs. Coral thrives because of a symbiotic relationship with algae that lives inside of it. The coral protects the algae to allow for photosynthesis then reaps the rewards in the form of nutrients vital for growth.  

Seeing the coral he loves gradually die off has been grim for Eakin.

"Over the last three years on a daily basis I would be getting emails with photographs that just become absolutely heart wrenching,” he said. “I’m seeing places that I’ve been diving on or have known for years, decades and seeing how they’ve just been laid waste during this.”

Photo: From left, moderator Kelly Wansor of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project, film director Jeff Orlowski, Mark Eakin of NOAA and Thomas Ackerman of the University of Washington.