• Melissa Pappas

What even is it and why should you care?

Most people have never and will never see a coral reef. That is not only because most people don’t have the luxury of living near them or the capacity to travel to them, but also because we, the human race, are doing a pretty good job of destroying them. Of course, we never set out to destroy these awe-inspiring creatures that build entire ecosystems teaming with the most biodiverse underwater life, but their demise is a byproduct of our modern lifestyle in what scientists refer to as the Anthropocene, or the epoch in which human activity has been the most influential over the Earth’s climate. Coral reefs are not the only ecosystem feeling the immense anthropogenic pressures, but they are one of the first and said to be the canary in the coal mine for climate change. This is because corals are extremely sensitive to increases in temperature, a major consequence of climate change. As the ocean warms, we are seeing a consistent increase in the summertime maximum temperatures to which corals and other marine organisms are exposed. Most corals are already living at their thermal threshold, and an increase in 1-2°C is enough to cause major physiological damage and coral starvation through a process called bleaching. The term “coral bleaching” has been popping up more frequently in the media, as it is now starting to occur annually on most tropical reefs. Many people are unfamiliar with these creatures, thus grasping the concept of coral bleaching is challenging and seemingly irrelevant. However, in reality, coral bleaching affects hundreds of millions of people, as reefs provide food, coastal protection from storms, and economic value through tourism. Now, the loss of these ecosystems is at higher risk as bleaching is occurring more frequently and intensely than ever before.

Born and raised in the Arizona desert, I myself had no conception of what lived in the ocean until I was old enough to travel to California and explore the little worlds of life in the tide pools. I’d get sucked into these tide pools containing sea anemones, urchins, and hermit crabs, with little indication that anything in them could harm me. Little did I know, we were doing more harm to these marine creatures than they ever could or would do to us. When I was 14, I decided I wanted to become a marine biologist. Through a series of fortunate events and tons of support from my family, I learned how to SCUBA dive, got a degree in marine science, and now continue to study the fascinating marine world of after diving the most colorful reefs I have ever seen in the Red Sea. I have never taken my path or opportunities for granted, but now I realize I have been taking the health and abundance of coral reefs for granted. The more I learn about how our modern lifestyle driven by consumption of disposable goods, processed food, dirty energy sources, and our mindset that nature is meant to be conquered, is killing the very things I love and the hope for these ecosystems to exist in the future, not only for our kids and grandkids to enjoy, but to rely on as well, I feel compelled to be a translator for these ecosystems, because they do have their own voice, but many chose not to listen or understand. and an advocate for awareness and change.

To speak for the ocean and coral reefs in particular, I must first share the facts of coral bleaching, currently, one of the largest threats to coral reefs. Corals are animals similar to jellyfish, as they are in the same family “Cnidaria,” both containing stinging cells called nematocysts. Corals, unlike jellyfish, are colonial animals, as hundreds to thousands of coral polyps (individual corals) grow together over the top of their calcium carbonate skeleton joined by connective tissue.

Corals like jellyfish use their stinging cells in their tentacles to capture prey in the water column. An organism that consumes other living matter is considered a heterotrophic feeder, while organisms that get their food from photosynthesis, or the power the sun, are considered autotrophic. Corals are both heterotrophic and autotrophic because they have a symbiotic relationship with microscopic single-celled algae called zooxanthellae (literally meaning yellow animals) that live within the coral’s endodermis (outer skin-like layer). These algae, although tiny and short-lived, have provided corals with the ability to survive and thrive in nutrient-poor environments like tropical waters. The relationship between corals and these algae has existed for millions of years and has allowed the coral animal to create such impressive structures and entire ecosystems that the marine world has come to rely on. Unfortunately, the stability of this relationship is being threatened as disturbances in the environment such as poor water quality, changes in pH and salinity, and increases in water temperature disrupt the communication between coral and algae. When the relationship between coral and algae is no longer beneficial, the algae vacate the coral. Because the coral relies on the algae to provide it with up to 99% of its food source through photosynthetically-produced sugar, the loss of the algae leads to coral starvation. Although corals can gather organic matter from the water column with their tentacles, there isn’t much available on the reef. When zooxanthellae leave the coral, it appears white because the algae give the coral its color. Typically, coral tissue is transparent with few cells that exhibit color, thus, when the algae leave, we see straight through the coral tissue to the white skeleton. This is why the phenomenon of algae vacating its coral host is termed coral bleaching.

Once bleached, a coral does not die immediately, however, it does become compromised as it is not receiving nearly enough carbon to sustain itself. Bleached corals are more susceptible to disease just like we are more susceptible to sickness if we are starving. Once bleached, corals do not have much time to recover before they die. It is in this critical stage where water temperatures need to return to normal to allow corals to take up their algae from the water column or repopulate their cells with remnant algae in their tissue. Corals have an amazing potential to recover from environmental disturbance, but if these disturbances interrupt the recovery process, the disturbance becomes chronic and full recovery is no longer possible. To put things into perspective for coral recovery from bleaching, coral colonies have been found to recover their algal population in less than a year (spanning from 5 to 10 months), but entire reefs require decades to recover from bleaching. Currently, mass bleaching events are predicted to occur annually on most reefs by 2050 and some reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), by 2020. We have already started to see these predictions come true as shown by a major bleaching event on the GBR in February 2020. Effects of climate change are staring us in the face and if we hope to save these ecosystems, we have to act now.

The problem of climate change can seen overwhelming and it is true that efforts to combat this global issue must be executed at a global scale, we as individuals can make a difference. Coral reefs and all other ecosystems need many imperfect eco-warriors more than just a few perfect ones.

  • Melissa Pappas

Updated: Feb 19

How the world of science communication is getting creative and my take on the process

SciArt is the joining of science and art. This is not a new concept as both artists and scientists aim to explore their environment and understand it through their respective mediums. Leonardo da Vinci is a great example of a 'SciArtist' using techniques from both fields to understand the world around him. However, as time progressed, the education system began to separate these fields and many people are faced with the decision to follow only one of these paths. It is also a common thought that being good at science means being bad at art and vice versa, or if not to that extreme, it is common to see a disconnect between the two ways of thinking. In reality, scientists must be creative. As part of their job, they are constantly developing new ideas and ways of solving problems and answering questions. Artists do the same; artists are constantly analysing how to best communicate a message through their pieces, and that process commonly has a 'scientific' style.

Leonardo da Vinci's sketches that combine art and science to understand human anatomy.

A great way to think about SciArt is how Emei Ma sums it up. "Let’s define science as an organized body of knowledge about the physical universe. And let’s generously define art as any creative process. Cobbling together these two words, science art, or SciArt, might be defined as follows: Any creative expression where the intent of the artist is to convey an observable understanding of the physical universe." Emei Ma is an amateur woodworker, producing art with a science narrative. Her work has focused on the immune system, hepatitis C infection, and mental health in some of her recent projects.

Because SciArt has been reinvented and has recently started receiving attention in universities and institutions, it has become a popular way to raise awareness on climate change and environmental issues. However, there are challenges that arise when scientists and artists initiate collaborations. The interdisciplinary approach to solving these problems is still very young and both scientists and artists come with their own mindset and vocabulary on how to communicate, approach and solve these problems. The effectiveness of using art for science communication has been questioned and the actual process has not been perfected, but the movement is growing and progressing quickly.

As a science communicator and self-taught artist, I often find myself in the SciArt space where there are not many guidelines. For any scientists reading this, I'm sure you will agree that the lack of guidelines is actually very daunting. Scientists have worked with a structure that has existed for hundreds of years and there is a traditional path in the world of academia and research. Now, imagine creating an entirely new path that also joins a discipline that seems to be the exact opposite of science. This is the path of SciArt. As I find myself here quite frequently, I have started to develop my own communication styles using art and the interaction with it.

One of many artists that have inspired my journey and SciArt content is Courtney Mattison, who has captivated audiences with her large ceramic coral gardens that highlight the threat of climate change and coral bleaching.

Her large-scale work is renown and has been highlighted in many news channels and magazines in the US.

Courtney is just one example of SciArtists raising awareness of climate change impacts. And although there are many other science topics to focus on, I am driven by the topic of coral reefs in the face of climate change.


"Symbiosis" is a piece I created to show the many symbiotic relationships humans have with each other and coral reefs. Each 'brain' is represented by a brain coral coloured brightly to show the symbiotic relationship between corals and their microscopic algal partners which photosynthesise and provide the coral animal with most of its food requirement. The brain coral is then placed inside the brain space of the skeleton to represent the symbiotic relationship between humans and coral reefs and to challenge how we think about coral reef systems and the resources we gain from them. The skeleton profiles are overlayed onto the profiles of women from many different ethnicities and races to represent the symbiotic relationship between diverse people in society. The images are large and bright and demand attention.

The second piece is an interactive acrylic block with removable slides that allow the audience to overlay different images of the art onto each other. When people are invited to interact with art, they can create their own stories and attach their own emotions to the message. Because people are ultimately driven by the emotions, art can be a powerful way to promote action for environmental causes.

One of my first pieces was made of coral fragments left over from a colleague's research project. Instead of fating these pieces of calcium carbonate skeletons as trash, I re organised them into forms that resembled human skeletons.

"Growing on the Bones of our Ancestors"

This piece became a focal point in an exhibit which was themed "growth." Here I aimed to communicate a few things. First, as coral reef scientists, we often forget we are working with living organisms and the process of sample collection, lab work, and data analysis becomes just a job. The coral skeletons left over from a heating experiment highlight that these samples were once alive. To help this message hit home a little more, I shaped the fragments into human hands to connect our existence with theirs. The idea of growing on the bones of the deceased is something we do metaphorically, while corals do it literally. When coral dies and leaves its skeleton behind, new polyps settle on it and continue to grow new colonies. Coral skeleton is actually a valuable resource for baby corals trying to find a home on the reef. Here the audience is free to decide what growing on the bones of our ancestors means to them.

Info-graphics are examples of SciArt that strictly use art as a tool for science communication. Here the focus is on scientific facts rather than evoking emotion through art. It is very important to know the difference between using art to communicate science and using the interdisciplinary approach of to create something new. Info-graphics are a great place to start when working on creatively communicating science, but they purely use art as a tool. I enjoy making visuals like these, but strive more to meld the two worlds to create emotional-evoking pieces.

Great Barrier Reef info-graphic

Facts from World Wildlife Fund and Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Association

Illustrations by Hana Kanee @hanakanee.illustrator

Layout and design by Melissa Pappas