This Scientist is Tackling What Could be the Largest Coral Reef Die-Off Ever

When we first met Dr. Ruth Gates this fall, she said something that really stuck with me. She told us that one of the problems with the scientific community is that "we can agree on 95% of something, and then debate the last 5% until it's too late to act."

I don't think she meant it as an insult. Ruth, of course, is a member of that community herself, a marine biologist at the forefront of her field. More so, I think what Ruth was getting at is the paralyzing scale of the work she and her colleagues are often faced with. She was talking about a scientific community who is often working on problems so huge - with stakes so high - that sometimes debate and discussion might seem like the safer way forward.

And that's why I really admire the work that Ruth and her team are doing out on Coconut Island. She's faced with a massive problem (coral bleaching and die-off) and has come up with a potential solution (breeding Super Coral) that has unknown consequences. You can certainly understand how some fear of criticism and of unintended consequence might creep in and keep her from pursuing the work.

But it hasn't. Simply put, I think Ruth cares too deeply about coral and what's happening to our reefs on a global scale. She can't just sit by, and she's run out of patience for debate and scholarly articles and everything else that isn't putting on a wet suit and getting to work.

The "Super Coral" Ruth is working on creating is nowhere near as nefarious as it sounds. She's simply extracting coral that seems particularly strong - organisms that have not bleached or suffered the ill effects of rising sea temperatures. She's bringing that back to her lab and running it through a series of tests designed to find out just what exactly it is about that coral that allows it to survive in our changing oceans. Armed with that knowledge, she can breed new coral that replicates those traits, ultimately (and hopefully) creating more resilient reefs.

All in all, it seems like a smart way of addressing a grave and growing issue with coral both in Hawaii and around the world, and ultimately like a pretty benign scientific approach. But the work hasn't been without criticism, and Ruth is okay with that. She has looked at the pros and cons of her Super Coral experiments for sure, but she also weighed what she calls "the risk of inaction." And as Ruth told me on our last day of filming, she knows exactly what the results of doing nothing are, and she won't stand by and watch them.

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