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PONDER Blog

Coral Communities

Chelsea Behymer

The Coral Sea is dotted with a plethora of Pacific Island destinations. Among them are the islands, cays, and atolls of New Caledonia and Fiji. Just as their characteristic coral reefs are a product of the geographic location of these islands relative to the oceanic conditions that surround, so too are cyclones. And both the cultural and ecological communities have evolved accordingly.

 Coral castles. Lifou, New Caledonia. 

Coral castles. Lifou, New Caledonia. 

Refuge for reefs from physical disturbance is literally built in to the structure of the reef itself. This is especially apparent when you contrast the experience of a tranquil, protected lagoon with that of its connected reef shelf. The highly branched corals dominating the coastal fringes and patches of reef within the lagoon, with their fast-growing limestone skeletons, provide ideal habitat for the early life history stages and ages of other reef animals. They are protected by a barrier of dense, low-profile corals that make up most of the reef that is fully exposed to the powerful energy of wave after wave.

 Low-profile coral colony. Lifou, New Caledonia. 

Low-profile coral colony. Lifou, New Caledonia. 

But to an irregular, less frequent, acute natural disturbance like a cyclone, coral reef community resilience is not maintained by this structure alone. Even inshore reef corals within the protection of a lagoon are not safe from the power of cyclonic wind generated waves and associated storm surge. Their fragile construction makes them most vulnerable to being completely flattened by such an event. Although cyclones are a natural occurrence for these reef communities, the importance of providing the more structurally complex habitat for young animals has not been compromised by the inshore species taking on the slower growth strategy of the coral species more regularly exposed to physical disturbance. Due to the low frequency of these events, maintaining structural diversity across a coral reef ensures that a wide variety of resources are found within a collective genetic pool. In other words, coral reef communities invest a lot of energy into future generations of corals and other reef components to ensure that these resources go toward making the reef more resilient to disturbances as a whole over time. Structural diversity allows a reef to spread their genetic "stock", so that not all of its eggs (pun intended) are in one basket, should that basket be the hardest hit by the disturbance.

 Refuge in the fringe. Isle of Pine, New Caledonia. 

Refuge in the fringe. Isle of Pine, New Caledonia. 

And while visiting Fiji, in the wake of cyclone Winston, I've learned that this applies to the communities of people affected by a cyclone too; life after such a storm is made possible not by the physical structures in which individuals in a community live, but the stronger relationships between the people and their environment that is built in to the structure of the community as a whole. This was made clear to me by an ambitious high school student named Devlin who I met on a diving trip in Suva. En route to the reef, while looking back on a lush, volcanic mountainscape that hardly showed signs of damage, I asked him how Suva fared in the storm. Devlin astutely pointed out that the country was actually in a much better place than it could be in, because Suva was largely spared from the worst of the storm. Suva is the main distributor of supplies throughout the country and has been essential to supplying relief and aid to people in need. Fiji will recover, and be stronger. Similarly, the coral reefs surrounding Suva will likely play a role in helping the nearby nearby reefs to recover too by providing recruits of coral reef inhabitants that travel on ocean currents to help rebuild the areas most affected.

 Absorbing the energy. Isle of Pines, New Caledonia. 

Absorbing the energy. Isle of Pines, New Caledonia. 

The next day, while catching up with my friends at Naciriyawa Farm, just outside of Lautoka, where the cyclone damage to the community was much more significant, something else struck me as similar to the strategy of coral reefs. The farm is owned by Ronelle and Claude, a couple from South Africa who sailed here to pursue their dreams of starting a farm. I was privileged to be a part of the farm's beginnings in 2012, when I spent ten days there as a volunteer. My time at Naciriyawa is still one of my fondest memories from college, and it was wonderful to see how much the farm has developed since. But it's had its ups and downs, the two most recent cyclones being among the biggest challenges Naciriyawa has faced. In our conversation, the couple shared their thoughts on understanding why many local people have learned not to put all of the little time or money they have into infrastructure. Because cyclones are a reality for the communities of people here, it's not worth investing the time or energy into structural defenses that will be ripped apart by the next big storm. People like Ronelle and Claude had only just begun to operate normally after the last storm when Winston hit. They are exhausted, discouraged, and again set backward. But they are recovering ... drawing on their resources, experience, each other, and others in the community to bounce back again, which are all much stronger than the material things that may have been lost or damaged.

 Atoll in the making. Isle of Pine, New Caledonia.

Atoll in the making. Isle of Pine, New Caledonia.

Even the coral structures on a reef that are deconstructed by the physical forms of a cyclone are not disposable. These materials will be recycled within the complexity of the coral reef system, essential for it to rebuild. Counting plastic straws paradoxically littering the sand that was made by repurposed reef material in both Fiji and New Caledonia, I find it ironic that even communities of people here, that in some ways have maintained the culture around living in the tropical pacific are still of the disposable nature that has become modern society. We adapt and rebuild, but don't always recycle our resources efficiently like a coral reef, as an interconnected community and in a way that will outlast the storms to come. Just like the genetic diversity on a reef, communities of people could benefit by investing more into what is less disposable, like knowledge.

 

 Disposal of the indisposable. Isle of Pine, New Caledonia.  

Disposal of the indisposable. Isle of Pine, New Caledonia.  

Coral reefs are incredibly resilient ecosystems. They have endured drastic changes over millennia, but their resilience mechanisms inherent in their biodiversity are being compromised by local impacts, such as plastic pollution. In the imminent path of future global disturbances such as more cyclones, increasing sea surface temperatures, and ocean acidification, by protecting coral reefs locally, we not only maintain the resilience of reefs inherent in the biodiversity that is protected, but also provide future generations of people with the experiential understanding of its value (i.e. knowledge). And particularly for people here, the reefs that protect their coastlines from daily erosion, it's worth it.  And there certainly are healthy reefs here, not locally stressed, even if they're in close proximity to one that is. Where do we start spreading the knowledge? The next time you're in the tropical pacific and you buy a fresh coconut, make sure you order it "sans pai". The funny look you'll probably receive is your opportunity to spread the word.

 

 Well worth the protection. Lifou, New Caledonia. 

Well worth the protection. Lifou, New Caledonia.