Climate change, tons of waste and storms are endangering Eilat’s reef, the northernmost coral reef in the world

The Eilat coral reef, 2019
The Eilat coral reef, 2019Credit: irisphoto1/Shutterstock

Nir Hasson Sep. 12, 2021

Eilat’s coral reef is less resilient than had been believed, according to a report published Sunday by the Environmental Protection Ministry on Sunday.

The reef in the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba faces growing environmental pressures, some of them connected to climate change, according to the survey of status of the reef in 2020. These include rising water temperatures, increasing concentration of hazardous materials due to changes in flow patterns in the gulf, an exceptional storm that badly damaged the reef, the accumulation of waste on the seafloor, and changes to the chemical composition of the water due to a rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the air.

Eilat’s reef, the northernmost coral reef in the world, is still considered relatively resilient to climate change. While most of its counterparts around the world have grown increasingly sicker over the past few decades, with coral deaths reaching double-digit percentages, the reef in Eilat has come through nearly unscathed. In addition, studies have shown that the corals themselves are not adversely affected by rising water temperatures in the gulf.

The latest survey, carried out by Yonathan Shaked and Prof. Amatzia Genin of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, discloses a number of threats to the corals resulting from climate change.

The most serious damage described in the study was caused by an exceptional storm in March 2020 that caused enormous damage to the city’s beaches. The storm’s fierce winds and extreme waves battered the reefs to depths of up to 10 meters below the surface, breaking the colonies. Subsequent flooding and erosion covered the colonies with sand stirred up from the ocean floor. In some areas that were examined the storm caused the loss of up to 22 percent of the area of the reef, and of 6 percent in the least affected areas.

The scientists also measured a rise in the concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and chlorophyll in the water of the Gulf of Eilat, mainly from the discharge of concentrated brine from a nearby desalination plant. The hitherto low levels of these nutrients are responsible for the great clarity of the water in the gulf as well as the health of the corals. According to Dror Zurel, the ministry’s environmental marine monitoring coordinator, rising water temperatures have affected the current patterns in the gulf, contributing further to the excessively high nutrient concentrations.

Last year a record water temperature of 29.1 degrees Celsius (84.38 Fahrenheit) was recorded in the gulf. The previous record, recorded nine years earlier, was 28.4 degrees Celsius, for an average annual rise of 0.036 degrees Celsius. That is triple the warming rate of the world’s seas and oceans, as calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

As noted, Eilat’s corals are relatively tolerant to temperature increases, but extreme warming of the water could affect other animals living around the reef. An extreme heat weave in Eilat in 2017 that caused the water temperature to rise by 1 degree Celsius in 24 hours caused a massive die-off of fish. The researchers fear that such extreme temperature events will become more common in the years to come, as the climate crisis worsens.

An auxiliary survey carried out by Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research using an underwater robot found 350,000 tons of waste per kilometer on the ocean floor of the Gulf of Eilat – an astonishing 1,000 times the amount on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea at similar depths. The garbage included not only plastic bottles, disposable tableware and sunscreen containers, but also heavy objects swept in to the water in the March 20 storm such as lounge chairs, rugs and chunks of iron.

The most serious threat to the health of the gulf is the anticipated increased in petroleum transport in the gulf as a result of the contract signed by the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company with the United Arab Emirates. “A change in policy on the Gulf of Eilat is necessary,” says Zurel. “When we were asked to give instructions on transporting ammonia through the gulf we were told that we were being too strict. I said that might be true, but show me one port that brings petroleum and hazardous materials into a coral reef. They said there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. Exactly, I replied.”

In a written response to the latest report, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said it was more important now than every before to ease the environmental pressures on the Gulf of Eilat in general and the coral reef in particular. She said the government is discussing the contract with the UAE, in response to her request, as it affects the reef. “The survey data emphasize the importance of rethinking our national priorities to protect the marine environment in the Gulf of Eilat,” the statement said.

The report carried some good news along with the bad. Between December 2019 and March 2020, a green sea turtle climbed onto the beach to lay her eggs – a very rare occurrence in Eilat. Some of the hatchlings made it into the sea, but some of the eggs were damaged by the March 2020 storm.

Editorial | Save Eilat’s Coral Reefs – Haaretz

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A coral reef in Eilat, photographed in 2019.
A coral reef in Eilat, photographed in 2019.Credit: Prof. Maoz Fine/Bar-Ilan University

Haaretz Editorial Sep. 12, 2021

Israel is blessed with the world’s northernmost coral reef and one of its most beautiful. But the report published Sunday by the Environmental Protection Ministry paints a worrisome picture of the threats facing the reef, some of which stem from climate change and some from the authorities’ mistaken policies over the years. Israel must wake up in order to prevent serious harm to one of its most important natural treasures.

Studies carried out in recent years have shown that reef corals in Eilat have exceptional resistance – relative to similar reefs around the world – to bleaching, a disease that affects most of the world’s corals. This reassuring information created the sense that the reef in Eilat is immune to the climate crisis. But the ministry’s latest survey details a series of serious threats to this natural gem.

In March 2020, there was an exceptionally harsh storm in the Gulf of Eilat, apparently exacerbated by the climate crisis. The storm caused extensive damage to the corals. In 2017, a heat wave caused a massive die-off of fish. Also threatening the reef is an increase in the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water due to a change in current patterns that is presumably related to global warming.

In addition, an underwater robot that surveyed the seabed of the gulf found alarming amounts of debris, from disposable tableware to lounge chairs that were swept into the Red Sea during the March storm: 350,000 items per square kilometer, 1,000 times the amount found on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. In 2020, the first skeletal deformities of tiny animals were discovered. These distortions indicate the difficulty the ecosystem is having in adapting to changes in water composition, like an increase in water acidity due to the dissolving of carbon dioxide.

Healthy ecosystems are the first line of defense against the climate crisis. The first step in protecting ecosystems is preventing new threats. The reef in Eilat is not only the northernmost in the world; it is also the only one in the world near a large port through which fertilizers, oil and hazardous materials are transported. Any mishap could cause an ecological disaster for sea life and an economic disaster for Eilat. All this highlights the blatant irresponsibility of the agreement signed by the government’s Europe-Asia Pipeline Company with the United Arab Emirates, which is supposed to bring eight times more oil traffic into the Gulf of Eilat.

The government must cancel this agreement, which is in any case linked to the fossil-fuel economy, which must be eliminated. What’s more, government ministries must prepare a careful and comprehensive plan to protect the Gulf of Eilat.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.