Purpose: Students will explore scientists’ efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, research other nonhuman species that may be impacted by climate change and develop proposals to lessen those impacts. Students will turn their proposals into an infographic.

Procedural overview:  This activity includes several components. Depending on the time constraints of your classroom, you can do one or all of the parts.

For homework, students should read the online Science News articles “Probiotics help lab corals survive deadly heat stress” and “The new UN climate change report shows there’s no time for denial or delay.” Students will answer questions about both articles and write a summary of the coral article.

During the first class, students should partner up, share their summaries with one another and offer feedback. Students will also begin research on a nonhuman species (other than corals) that is impacted by climate change. Based on students’ research findings, they will develop proposals suggesting how to mitigate the effects of climate change on their chosen species.

In the second class, students will create an infographic about their research and proposal.

Approximate class time:  2 class periods

Supplies:

Paper

Pencils

Student worksheet

Teacher background sheet

Computer with internet access

Interactive meeting and screen-sharing application for virtual learning (optional)

Digital image editing or illustrating software (optional)

Audio or video capture and editing hardware and software (optional)

Want to make it a virtual lesson?

This activity can be performed virtually by using interactive meeting software. Student groups should use screen-sharing and file-sharing applications in which documents can be simultaneously edited in real-time.

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Before the first calss, students should read the online Science News articles “Probiotics help lab corals survive deadly heat stress” and “The new UN climate change report shows there’s no time for denial or delay” and answer the following questions for homework. Versions of the articles appear in the September 11, 2021 issue of Science News.

Questions No. 1–5 should be answered after reading the article “Probiotics help lab corals survive deadly heat stress,” and questions No. 6–8 should be answered after reading the article “The new UN climate change report shows there’s no time for denial or delay.” If students need help summarizing, have them follow instructions in the Science News in High Schools resource “How to write a summary.”  

1. What problem is being addressed by the scientists in their research?

Rising ocean water temperatures are causing corals to bleach and die. The research in the article focuses on testing potential solutions to prevent or minimize the effects of heat stress on coral reefs.

2. What solution(s) are scientists testing to address the problem?

Climate change is affecting corals faster than they can adapt to the new water conditions, but their bacterial and algal partners can adapt much more quickly. So, scientists have dosed corals with a mix of beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, to see how the corals responded when the water temperature was raised in a lab setting.

3. List the research questions or topics addressed by the scientific research described in the article.

Students will need to infer these questions from the description of the research conducted on corals. Student answers may include: How can we protect corals from the effects of marine heat waves? How might dosing corals with a mixture of beneficial bacteria affect how corals respond to heat stress? Which coral symbionts are better able to respond to heat stress? How can algal and bacterial symbionts help corals respond to and survive heat stress?

4. What are some possible downsides of the proposed solution?

Scientists are testing the solution in closed systems, and they don’t know if the probiotics will wash away if applied in an open coral reef system. Distributing the right probiotics over large areas will likely be logistically difficult and expensive. Changing the balance of different bacteria in the reef and influencing the metabolic and genetic processes in corals may cause disease outbreaks or damage to other species. Scientists don’t know how probiotics will affect other organisms in the food chain.

5. Write a three-paragraph summary of the article’s main points.

Student summaries will vary. The following summary is an example.

Climate change is affecting corals by increasing water temperatures and causing marine heat waves. During these events, corals bleach as they eject their algal symbionts. Without their microbial symbionts, the coral holobiont, or system, cannot meet the requirements to keep the organisms alive. Dead and dying coral reefs affect the health of the larger ocean ecosystems.

To prevent coral bleaching, scientists are researching whether and how probiotics, or helpful microorganisms, can be used to reduce the effects of heat stress on corals. They have applied probiotics to corals in aquariums and then raised the water temperature for a short time. They measured the amount of bleaching that occurred when different solutions, such as probiotics or saline, were applied to the corals to see how the corals responded when the water temperature was raised.

The results showed that when corals were dosed with probiotics, nearly all of the corals survived the heat stress caused by raising the water temperature. In contrast, about 40 percent of the corals that were treated with saline were killed by heat stress. The probiotics seem to have enabled the recovery of corals in a lab setting possibly by causing genetic and metabolic changes in the corals that reduced inflammation and allowed the damaged cells to heal. However, the researchers caution that applying probiotics will not save coral reefs and that mitigation of carbon emissions, restoration and rehabilitation of reefs are still necessary.

6. How might marine, aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems be affected by rising global temperatures?

All ecosystems will be affected in one way or another by rising global air and ocean temperatures. Organisms in marine and other aquatic ecosystems may have to contend with more acidic ocean waters and stronger, more frequent storms. Organisms in terrestrial ecosystems might experience more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and wildfires as a result of warming air temperatures, as well as changes in snow and ice cover.

7. Describe how natural systems other than coral reefs might be affected by rising global temperatures.

Student answers will vary. A student may say that like coral reefs, other marine ecosystems, such as kelp forests and tide pools, could experience stress from marine heat waves, rising average water temperatures and changes in the acidity and oxygen content of ocean water. Coastal, riparian and freshwater ecosystems may be especially affected by the increasing intensity of storms and by rising sea levels. Alpine, arctic and polar ecosystems could be affected by decreases in snow and ice cover and by the melting of glaciers, ice caps, sea ice and permafrost. Terrestrial ecosystems could be affected by droughts, floods, wildfires, storms and melting ice and permafrost.

8. Brainstorm a list of other nonhuman species on which the impacts of climate change might be observed and traced. Consider marine, riparian, wetlands, arctic, savannah, prairie, desert and forest ecosystems.

Student answers will vary. Some species that play key roles in marine ecosystems include sharks, otters, starfish, urchins, seaweeds, seagrasses and sponges. Important species in aquatic and wetland ecosystems include mangroves, alligators, algae, beavers and salmon. Arctic species affected by climate change include polar bears, arctic foxes and emperor penguins. In grasslands and savannahs, keystone species include elephants, termites, prairie dogs, tortoises and prairie grasses. In forests, old-growth trees such as redwoods may indicate changes caused by shifting climates. In deserts, cacti and tortoises are key species. Other keystone species that can be found in a variety of terrestrial ecosystems include hummingbirds, bees, deer, wolves, bears and mountain lions.

Day 1

Paired feedback

Pair up students and have them read each other’s article summary and provide feedback using the following questions.

1. What suggestions do you have to improve your partner’s summary?

Student answers will vary. Students should make suggestions based on the accuracy and completeness of the summary.

2. What questions do you still have about the research findings after reading the summary?

Student answers will vary. Students might ask: How did scientists know which microbes to include in the probiotic mix? How did scientists keep the probiotics from washing away? How did scientists know how much probiotics to add to corals? What happens if the water temperature is raised even higher or stays high longer? Can microbes be modified to help corals survive long-term water temperature changes, or can they only work for short-term marine heat waves? How might probiotic doses help or harm other organisms in the coral reef system? What happens to the probiotic solution after the marine heat wave is over?

Optional class discussion

After students have finished reviewing their partners’ summaries, you could conduct a deeper class discussion about coral reefs and climate change, or you can move directly to the group research component. If you do a discussion about coral reefs, consult the teacher background sheet for useful information and discussion questions.

Group research

Place students into groups of three or four and explain that the groups must choose and research a nonhuman species that is impacted by climate change. Encourage students to refer to the homework they completed before class as well as think about their local environment when brainstorming ideas.

Students can use internet resources, including the Science News and Science News for Students archives, or library resources to research how their selected organism is impacted by climate change. Students should apply the information gathered in the preceding sections to focus their research. If class time is short when students begin their research, students may conduct independent research as homework and report their findings to the group at the beginning of the second class day.

Groups will then develop a testable climate change mitigation strategy for their species, much as the coral researchers did.

Each group should answer the following questions. Sample answers are given for a grassland insect species.

1. What species are you researching?

We chose to research how mound-building termites from tropical or subtropical grasslands are affected by climate change and how these termites affect their ecosystems.

2. In what type of ecosystem or biome does your species occur? Describe the species role in the ecosystem. What relationships does the species have with other species in the ecosystem?

Mound-building, subterranean termites live in dryland savannahs or grasslands in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia and South America. These terrestrial ecosystems are likely to experience higher temperatures and droughts that are expected to lead to desertification.

3. Use internet or library resources to research how your chosen species has been affected by climate change or how it affects its environment as a result of climate change. Consult at least three resources. Be sure to record proper bibliographic information so that you can cite your sources.

The resources we used included:

J.A. Bonachela et al. Termite mounds can increase the robustness of dryland ecosystems to climatic changeScience. Vol. 347, February 6, 2015, p. 651. doi: 10.1126/Science.1261487.

Morgan Kelly. Tiny termites can hold back deserts by creating oases of plant life. Princeton University Office of Communications. Published online February 5, 2015.

L.A. Ashton et al (2019) Termites mitigate the effects of drought in tropical rain forest. Science. Vol 363, January 11, 2019, p. 174. doi: 10.1126/science.aau9565.

4. Describe the species’s role in the ecosystem and the relationships it has with other species in the ecosystem.

Mound-building subterranean termites, such as those from Africa, Asia or South America, act as ecosystem engineers by gathering and decomposing wood and other plant materials and maintaining fungus “gardens” inside the mounds. The fungi help break down the woody materials the termites bring back to the mound to make a nutrient-rich food for the termites. The fungi also make heat as part of the decomposition process, and this heat helps maintain the internal temperature of the mound. The fungi also help maintain the humidity inside the mound by absorbing and releasing water.

5. How is the species affected by climate change? How does the species affect its surroundings as it responds to climate change?

As global temperatures increase, droughts are becoming more frequent and severe, and desertification is also increasing. Studies conducted on African and South American mound-building termites indicate that during droughts and heat waves, termite populations increase. Termite mounds help areas experiencing drought retain moisture and nutrients in the soil. In turn, plants grow better and survive longer in those areas despite the changing climate. Therefore, termite mounds can act to buffer, or slow, changes to the environment caused by hotter, drier weather patterns. However, if dry and hot conditions are sustained long enough to cause trees and plants to die, true desertification might occur. Then the termites would be left without food, and their colonies would eventually collapse. In areas where precipitation increases or storms become more frequent or more severe, termite mounds that are made from mud might wash away, destroying the colony. If an area with termite mounds becomes wetter or more humid, the termites will have a hard time keeping their fungus gardens at the right temperature and humidity, which may cause the colony to collapse and die.

6. Choose one of the climate effects or outcomes described in the Science News article that directly affects the species you chose. Create a flow chart that describes the full cause-and-effect chain of events that leads from the climate change effect you chose to its impact on your chosen species.

We chose to trace the effects of drought on termites and their ecosystems.

Weather gets hotter and drier.
Less precipitation falls.
Savannah area experiences more frequent and more severe droughts.
More plants shed their leaves and die.
More dead material is available for termites to eat.
Termite populations increase and termites build more mounds.
Termites gather dead plant material to decompose inside their mounds.
Termites tunnel down to reach water tables and carry water to the mound, where it is stored underground where it cannot easily evaporate.
Termites turn dead plant material into nutrients that get returned to the soil as waste.
Some water from the mound spreads through the soil to areas around the mounds and some water is released into the air around the mounds as water vapor.
Nearby plants absorb the nutrients and water from the soil and water vapor and use it to create leaves and to perform life functions.
The plants help cool the area and increase the likelihood of precipitation.
The drought ends, and the area remains a dryland savannah or grassland.
The termite population decreases.

7. Brainstorm a list of potential solutions that could use the species you chose to mitigate the effects of climate change on the ecosystem or another species. Make sure you consider how each potential solution could be tested.

Termite colonies could be placed in areas that are experiencing more frequent or more severe droughts to see if they improve the area’s resilience to drought. Scientists could mimic the architecture of termite mounds to construct “moisture domes.” to help retain moisture in dry grasslands or fields. Scientists could test how growing “fungus gardens” in domes without termites could help retain soil moisture in dry areas. To help termites survive in areas that get wetter, scientists could test how to make termite mounds more resistant to washing away during heavy rains or how to increase airflow so that the mounds don’t get too humid. For example, they could try constructing termite mounds by using different materials and use water hoses to test each mound’s resistance to erosion and the level of humidity in each mound.

8. What scientific questions could you ask that would help you plan an investigation to test a potential solution?

Does placing termite colonies in grassland areas that experience frequent droughts minimize the effects of drought on the surrounding grassland ecosystem?

9. Choose an investigative question from which you can derive a testable hypothesis. State the testable hypothesis and describe a sample experiment that could test the hypothesis.

We hypothesized that increasing the number of mound-building termite colonies in a 1-acre plot of subtropical grassland by 10 percent would improve the amount of moisture retained by surrounding soil and plants by 10 percent over a period of three months. To test this hypothesis, we would need to find at least two, but preferably more, 1-acre plots that have similar weather and climate conditions, that have comparable amounts of food resources and plant cover, and that have a similar number of termite mounds. We would need to measure the amount of moisture in soil and plants within each acre. We would need to count the number of existing termite mounds within each acre and place 10 percent more termite mounds within one of the two plots. Then, we would need to monitor the plots over at least 3 months during which drought conditions are present in both areas. At the end of the 3-month period, we would need to measure the amount of moisture in soil and plants within each 1-acre plot and compare the final moisture measurements to each acre before the experiment began and to each other to see if there is a measurable or observable difference in the amount of moisture retained by the soil and plants in the plot that had the extra termite mounds.

Day 2

Communicate information

Have groups use their research and proposed solutions to create infographics to share with the class. Infographics are visual images, such as charts or diagrams, that are used to represent information or data. These collections of images and charts generally include minimal text and provide an easy-to-understand overview of a topic. To develop an infographic, students might benefit from looking at infographics about climate change, coral reefs or other topics. Recommend that students look at the following infographics to get ideas for how to display their information visually.

IAEA/OA-ICC Ocean acidification infographic

Elzemiek Zinkstok’s Ocean Acidification Infographic

NOAA Coral Bleaching Infographic

NOAA Threats to Coral Reefs Infographic

NOAA Solutions for Coral Reefs: Restoration

King County Confronting Climate Change Infographic

King County Climate Change Graphics

Each group’s infographic must include background about the chosen species and how climate change might affect it. There also should be an explanation of the group’s mitigation strategy and the proposed testing method.

1. Design an infographic that introduces your chosen species, describes its ecological role, illustrates the cause-and-effect chain for how climate change impacts the species and identifies one proposed solution to mitigate the effects of climate change. The infographic can be hand-drawn or computer-generated.

Students’ infographics should include information about the ecological role of the species they chose, the ecological services the species supplies, the way the species responds to climate change impacts, the proposed solution for mitigating the effects of climate change on the species and an explanation of how the proposal could be tested.

Additional resources

Science News articles:

C. Gramling. Ocean heat waves are becoming more common and lasting longer. Science News. Published online April 10, 2018.

A. McDermott. Reef rehab could help threatened corals make a comeback. Science News. Published online October 18, 2016.

Scientific articles:

E.P. Santoro et al. Coral microbiome manipulation elicits metabolic and genetic restructuring to mitigate heat stress and evade mortalityScience Advances. Published online August 13, 2021. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abg3088.

P.M. Rosado et al. Marine probiotics: increasing coral resistance to bleaching through microbiome manipulationThe ISME Journal. Vol 13, April 2019, p. 921. doi: 10.1038/s41396-018-0323-6.

Other resources:

E. Svoboda. Will Probiotics Save Corals or Harm Them? Scientific American. Published online May 1, 2021.

F. Bulleri et al. Harnessing positive species interactions as a tool against climate-driven loss of coastal biodiversity. PLOS Biology. Published online September 4, 2018. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2006852.

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