In addition to the tragic loss of life and property on fire-ravaged Maui, scientists are also concerned about the environmental damage, both on land and under water. Biologists who have spent decades studying marine life in Hawaii fear the aftermath will endanger coral reefs and other marine life.
“The corals are attached to the bottom of the ocean, they cannot move,” said Dr. Jennifer Smith, director of the Marine Biology Research Division at UC San Diego. “So if you were to rain a bunch of sediment, ash, debris on top of them, they could essentially become smothered. Add to that a lot of this ash and debris could have chemical toxins.”
Manuel Mejia with the Coral Reef Alliance in Hawaii said coral reefs require clean, clear, low-nutrient water to grow.
“When you have ashfall making the water cloudy and then smothering the corals, that tends to increase a lot of nutrients and bacteria in the water which aren’t good for coral reef growth and production,” Mejia said.
Once recovery missions subside, scientists will use equipment to monitor the sea life over the next few months.
“We haven’t seen a fire of this scale kind of interacting or meeting the ocean where there are sensitive coral reefs offshore so it’s hard to know what we’re going to see there,” Smith said.