Fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Getty Images
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Coral reefs are an irreplaceable environmental and economic treasure, in need of help

"Losing the world's coral reefs would be like burning every Impressionist painting - you won't get them back." A new exhibiton at the Natural History Museum shows just what a tragedy these natural wonders' loss would be.

When we hear the words "coral reef" we probably reminiscence on its collage of beauty, and feel nostalgic about Finding Nemo, but that’s probably as far as most people's knowledge goes. Yet despite occupying only about 0.1 per cent of the ocean’s floor, they provide life for at least a quarter of all marine species  and with rareness comes fragility. Human interferences such as overfishing, coral bleaching, pollution and climate change have damaged coral reef ecosystems, and many of them are now holding on for dear life.

By 2050, practically all of the world’s coral reefs will be seriously endangered. The Caribbean reefs, for example, have already lost 80 per cent of its coral cover since the 1970s, mainly due to the overfishing of the fish which eat algae that grows on it, as well as a disease that wiped out algae-eating sea urchins – causing the complete off-balance in the coral:algae ratio. Coral and photosynthesising algae are meant to live in symbiotic harmony when the water temperature is just right, but a rise in global temperatures stresses the algae; they get fed up and start to leave the coral in a process called "coral bleaching". The result is that the corals lose their algae, and without the algae they start to die. 

There are around 800 species of coral worldwide, and some have developed extreme survival tactics, like dissolving neighbouring corals with digestive toxins. But this isn't enough, and like all ecosystems, the damage caused to the coral reefs will have a domino effect throughout the world's oceans, and on land - like people living in countries like the Philippines and Haiti, two impoverished places which depend on the reefs for both food and tourism revenue.

To try to kick against public ignorance of just how important coral reefs are to us, the the Natural History Museum has curated a new exhibition about them. "This exhibition helps us to understand and predict the effect of human impact and climate change on our oceans, one of the biggest challenges facing our natural world today," said Sir Michael Dixon, the NMH's director ahead of its opening. "Coral reefs [...] are being studied every day here at the museum."

The exhibition is simple, spacious but effective. You walk in feeling as those you’ve been immersed in water, and there are geometrically-accurate structures of corals dotted around the space to create that "under the sea" illusion (though they're made from fresh plywood, the pungent smell of which may sometimes slap you back to reality).

Speaking to the NS at the press opening, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland spoke about why coral reefs are important, and the dangerous consequences of not having them around anymore:

Coral reefs are important for a number of reasons. Up front they are an enormously beautiful and diverse system – the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, aside from the rainforests. When you look at their contribution, they have generated trillions of dollars to economies across the planet. But what’s important is that there are about 500,000 people with very little means who live along coastlines and look to coral reefs for their daily meals and income. And those 500,000 people are extremely vulnerable. If we start to lose productivity of coral reefs and fisheries disappear, those people become even more impoverished.

It's an informative exhibition  and here are seven highlights:

1) It has six corals collected by Charles Darwin during his HS Beagle from 1831 to 1886  and even better, it's got the illustrations from his first scientific study, on the formation of coral reefs.

Darwin's notebook.

2) A giant Turbinaria coral – a massive, one-metre-long specimen, the many layers of which would have been a safe haven for many sea species.

3) A giant clam – the biggest of all living bivalves, and weighs as much as 300 bags of sugar. It's currently under threat of extinction as a result of overfishing.

4) A giant grouper – about the size of a large motorcycle, it’s the largest bony fish living in the Great Barrier Reef. But don’t be deceived by its size, as it doesn’t eat humans and is in real threat of extinction throughout the Indo-Pacific region due to overfishing.

A mighty, giant grouper fish.

5) A sea fan – a fragile lace-like structure that helps filter food out of the water. It’s also home to seahorses and nudibranchs.

6) Gorgeous 180 degree panoramic imagery of several reefs in a chamber of circular screens.

The immersive reef chamber.

7) A hundred real-life fish and 26 species of coral, making up a four-tonne aquarium. (And, of course, I tried to count up all the Nemos and Dorys I could find.)

"Losing the coral reefs would be like taking all the Impressionist pictures in the world and burning them, because you won’t get them back," said Hoegh-Guldberg. "Once you’ve lost them it’s a tragedy." On this evidence, it's clear why.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea will be opened to the public on 27 March – 13 September 2015, 10.00 – 17.50. All photos by the author unless otherwise credited.

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue