Scientists debate whether floating pumice could help replenish Great Barrier Reef
Mariam Matti, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Monday, August 26, 2019 6:39PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, August 27, 2019 10:08PM EDT
A massive sheet of volcanic rock the size of Manhattan floating through the Pacific Ocean is expected to hit Australian shores in about seven or eight months, bringing new marine life with it, according to scientists.
The pumice – a lightweight bubble-rich rock that forms when lava cools quickly – has sparked a debate about whether it will help replenish marine life in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or if it’s too late to reverse the damage done.
Experts at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia are hopeful that the pumice, as it floats through the ocean, will bring new marine life to the world’s largest coral reef system when it reaches that point. The reef has suffered devastating loss as a result of climate change.
“This is a potential mechanism for restocking the Great Barrier Reef,” Scott Bryan, QUT geologist and associate professor, said in a news release. “It will be able to pick up corals and other reef building organisms, and then bring them into the Great Barrier Reef.”
However, Dr. Paul Ashwell, geology professor at the University of Toronto, said unless climate conditions change, life on the coral reef will still die.
“The corals are becoming more and more stressed on a regular basis,” he told CTV News. “Every year, the climate changes, the reef bleaches a little more and more of it dies off.”
According to NASA Earth Observatory, the pumice formed after an underwater volcano erupted near the Pacific island of Tonga around Aug. 7.
Days later, Michael Hoult and Larissa Brill, an Australian couple sailing their catamaran to Fiji, encountered “pumice stones from marble to basketball size.”
"It was quite eerie, actually," Brill told CNN. "The whole ocean was matte -- we couldn't see the water reflection of the moon."
Hoult describes the rocks as “closing in” around their catamaran. “We couldn't see our trail or our wake at all. We could just see the edge where it went back to regular water -- shiny water -- at night,” Hoult added. The couple was temporarily stuck after rocks jammed their catamaran’s rudder.
Brill and Hoult have since sent samples of the pumice to QUT researchers in Australia, who have been studying similar eruptions for 20 years.
Bryan said this sort of occurrence happens every five years, but “it’s the right timing” because the pumice will pass some coral reef areas around the time of the main coral spawning before reaching its expected destination.
“Each piece of pumice is a rafting vehicle. It’s a home and a vehicle for marine organisms to attach and hitch a ride across the deep ocean to get to Australia,” added Bryan.
“You can bring in as many new ones as you want, but unless the condition changes the reef will still die,”he said.