Eilat's Coral Reefs in Worse Shape Than Previously Thought, New Study Shows

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

Nir Hasson
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The Eilat coral reef, 2019
The Eilat coral reef, 2019
Nir Hasson

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.

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