Prof Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, was awarded with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology overnight.
Prof Hughes was recognised for his efforts to describe and draw attention to the global loss of fragile coral reef ecosystems as a result of widespread warming, acidification, pollution and disease.
He shares the award with two other marine biologists who have made seminal contributions to our understanding of the world’s oceans, whilst applying this knowledge to protect and conserve marine biodiversity and oceanic ecosystem services in a rapidly changing world.
Prof Hughes’ work has led the implementation of measures to conserve and restore the incomparable resources of coral reefs.
“Coral reefs are not just beautiful places where wealthy people can enjoy a holiday,” Prof Hughes said.
“We should not forget that 400 million people depend on them for their livelihoods and their food security.”
Prof Hughes’ research has focused on the coral bleaching caused by climate change. Bleaching occurs when reefs are exposed to stressors such as warming ocean waters and, if it is severe and prolonged enough, many of the corals will die. It will then take at least a decade to replace them.
His studies show that mass coral bleaching was unknown until the 1980s but since then repeated bleaching episodes have become something of a norm as global temperatures continue to rise.
The Great Barrier Reef has suffered four bleaching events since 1998, two in the consecutive years of 2016 and 2017, causing damage on an unmatched scale. Last year, a paper by Prof Hughes showed that coral larvae births on the Great Barrier Reef slumped by 89% with respect to the historical average, due to the unprecedented dying-off of adult corals after the back-to-back bleaching.
“Although overfishing and pollution also cause deterioration, the greatest threat facing reefs today is without doubt climate change,” affirms Hughes. “And this is not a risk that might affect them in future, but something that is harming them right now.”
Prof Hughes works alongside economists, political scientists and other researchers in the social sciences to develop strategies to combat the reef deterioration being driven by climate change.
“It is still not too late. The window of opportunity to save reefs remains open, but it is closing rapidly, so we have to act now to reduce pollutant emissions and stop wasting time.”
Prof Terry Hughes
Phone: +61 (0)400 720 164
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognise and reward contributions of singular impact in diverse fields of science, technology, social sciences and the humanities that have demonstrably expanded the frontiers of the known world, opening up new paradigms and knowledge fields. Their eight categories are reflective of the knowledge map of the 21st century, encompassing basic research in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, Biology and Biomedicine, Information and Communication Technologies, Humanities and Social Sciences, Economics, Finance and Management, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Climate Change, and, within the arts, the supremely creative realm of music.
A series of papers published by Prof Hughes on coral reefs and the threat of climate change: