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A mass of floating volcanic rock could help revive the Great Barrier Reef

Published Aug 20th, 2020 10:08PM EDT

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  • A mass of floating rock from a volcanic explosion underwater in 2019 has arrived at Australia, where it could help the Great Barrier Reef recover.
  • The reef is struggling with symptoms related to climate change.
  • The pumice contains organisms that could help revive areas of the reef that have died off.

Volcanoes that erupt on land spew liquid rock, gas, and debris into the air and the surrounding terrain. But volcanoes also exist beneath the ocean waves, and when one of those erupts, an entirely different series of events is set in motion. In the case of the eruption of an underwater volcano near the island nation of Tonga, the event produced a massive raft of floating rock.

Now, months later, that huge sheet of pumice has found its way across the ocean and arrived at Australia, where it could be exactly what the struggling Great Barrier Reef needs. The rock, which floats because it’s packed with bubbles of air, could revive areas of the reef that have been dramatically affected by climate change.

The saga of the Great Barrier Reef is well known at this point, but just in case you need a refresher: Things are bad. Warming ocean water due to climate change has caused mass “bleaching” of huge areas of the reef. Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm and organisms that support the reef are forced to leave or die outright. With those organisms gone, the fish and other animals that live in and around the reef leave, too.

Recovering from bleaching is something that takes a lot of time and some luck. Water temperatures have to be right, and scientists have been working on speeding up the process by seeding certain areas of the reef with healthy coral and experimenting with other things to draw animal life back to parts of the reef that have essentially died.

That’s where the massive raft of pumice comes in. Researchers are incredibly excited that the pumice made its way to Australia, and they see the potential for it to do some serious good. Climate change is still a problem, of course, but this event could give the reef a “boost” of sorts.

“Pumice rafts alone won’t help mitigate directly the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef,” Professor Scott Bryan of the Queensland University of Technology said in a statement. “This is about a boost of new recruits, of new corals and other reef-building organisms, that happens every five years or so. It’s almost like a vitamin shot for the Great Barrier Reef.”

“Each piece of pumice is a home, and a vehicle for an organism, and it’s just tremendous,” Brown said. “The sheer numbers of individuals and this diversity of species is being transported thousands of kilometres in only a matter of months is really quite phenomenal.”

It won’t be a cure-all, but there’s reason to be optimistic that the volcanic material, having gathered untold numbers of organisms during its trip across the ocean, could have a serious positive impact.