It may be obvious when you think about it, but did you know that the word “astronaut” literally means “star sailor”? By connecting the sea and sky in one word, (ástron meaning “star,” and nautes meaning “sailor”), our cultural language acknowledges the sacred character of both the oceans and skies.
Whether by boat or by starship, sailors and space travelers alike have long mapped their voyages according to information gathered from the sky, relying on stars as a navigational tool to guide them. And this year as we approach the end of summer, Mother Nature will once again remind us of the harmony that exists between sea and sky in a vivid display of grace and splendor with the upcoming Perseid meteor shower and coral reef spawning.
The shower is named for the constellation it inhabits, Perseus — inspired by the mythological demigod who heroically saved the goddess Andromeda from a sea monster. And like Perseus’ spirited deed, the meteor shower will be distinguished this summer with intense fireballs bursting into the night sky in August, with the peak meteor activity predicted for August 12–13. The Perseid shower is expected to be the most brilliant of 2018, with an estimated 60–70 meteors visible per hour.
Meteor showers occur when dust from asteroids or comets enter Earth’s atmosphere at an accelerated rate. As they collide, meteors and air particles create friction and heat. Most meteors are vaporized by the heat, creating what we call “shooting stars.” Depending on where the trail of particles falls in a particular year, meteor showers can be more or less intense.
Then, like clockwork, about a week after the full moon in August, reef-building corals nestled along the Gulf of Mexico are expected to release billions of male and female gametes (tiny eggs and sperm) in an annual phenomenon known as broadcast spawning — a synchronized event in which coral reproduce over a large geographic area. Once fertilized, the gametes develop into planulae, or coral larvae that disperse and drift throughout the water’s surface, resembling a magnificent star shower or snow flurry. After a variable period of drifting, the planulae eventually settle on the ocean floor and become a burgeoning colony.
This natural marvel occurs only at night, after rising water temperatures trigger the maturation of gametes within the coral polyps. It’s thought corals may be able to sense light and dark using primitive photoreceptors, although the timing of these spawns can shift depending on location. Scientists are looking forward to collecting the gametes for studies related to rebuilding reef health and resiliency.
Human impact on ocean wellness is formidable. Coral reefs have been declining in the last decade due in large part to ocean acidification and climate change. In a laudable effort to curb marine pollution, Hawaii recently signed the first bill in the U.S. to ban sunscreens containing chemicals that create toxic habitats for ocean life and are especially harmful to coral reefs.
According to the CNN Health Report, “The bill, which was passed by state lawmakers in May, will go into effect January 1, 2021. At that point, the sale or distribution of over-the-counter sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which help filter UV rays, will be prohibited.”
The relationship between the land, sea, and the sky is often reflexive, demonstrating indelible connections such as the pull of the moon, the ebb and flow of tides, and the lunar conception of baby coral, among innumerable others that illustrate the remarkable cycle of life.
With this in mind, it’s important for these tiny “star sailors” to have the best chance at finding their way toward successful colonization. A thriving coral reef means a vibrant future for marine health. The wellbeing of our planet depends on it.
To learn more about the threat to coral reefs, please visit: https://www.icriforum.org/about-coral-reefs/status-and-threat-coral-reefs.
For information about how to help, please go to: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/thingsyoucando.html.
You can find tips on viewing the Perseid meteor shower here: https://www.space.com/32868-perseid-meteor-shower-guide.html