Coral reefs are arguable one of the most vital ecosystems on the entire planet. Though they only occupy around 1% of the ocean floor, coral reefs support 25% of marine species. By acting as a breakwater, they provide a crucial barrier to storms which protects coastlines. Like forests, corals produce oxygen through the photosynthesis of the algae which resides on them. Corals are economically vital as well, providing as much as $375 billion annually and supporting roughly 500,000,000 people. Fishing and tourism industries are most negatively impacted by the loss of reefs.
Emerging in the 1980s, scientists began to observe corals losing their color on reefs around the world. This phenomenon, which came to be known as “bleaching” due to the starch white appearance of the affected corals, is a direct result of global warming induced rising ocean temperatures. As corals experience more stress from exposure to higher temperatures, the polyps expel the zooxanthellae algae which provide them with their food as well as their color, resulting in the bleached white appearance of the coral. If the ocean temperatures do not lower within a matter of months, the polyps are eventually unable to provide themselves with enough food and the coral dies. In just over three decades, high ocean temperatures conducive to bleaching have become three times more likely. Global bleaching events are occurring more frequently which gives reefs less recovery time. I annotated an article on hypothesis which details the effects of coral bleaching, and the current status of coral bleaching as a global threat to reefs.
Countless threats to coral reefs have emerged in recent years. Some of the most impactful include shoreline development, water pollution & runoff, overfishing, and arguably the most prominent threat being coral bleaching. Due to bleaching, 67% of the northern great barrier reef has died. These threats can be divided into global and direct, direct being any local threat to a specific reef, and global being threats that are occurring globally. Direct threats include water pollution & runoff, shoreline development, and overfishing, though multiple reefs are threatened by these issues. The most prominent and impactful issues facing corals at a global scale is global warming induced rising ocean temperatures which directly causes bleaching, and the absorption of CO2 into the oceans which causes ocean acidification. By 2050, 75% of all coral reefs are expected to face high to critical threat levels. Without significant change, the twenty first century could see the extinction of the majority of all corals, and in turn the loss of an entire ecosystem.
The current Great Barrier Reef began to form some 8,000 years ago, with individual coral structures able to dare back up to 500 years. With entire reefs getting wiped out within mere months, and the incredibly slow and tedious growth process, the future of coral reefs is seemingly bleak. Though this may be the case, there are viable solutions and ways for every individual to do their part towards saving coral reefs. When local issues such as boat anchors and unsustainable tourism are addressed, reefs are more capable of withstanding the stress placed on them by global threats such as ocean acidification. Simply reducing your carbon footprint through methods such as carpooling, eating locally and organic, and turning off unnecessary lights can slow global warming and in turn conserve coral reefs. Being a conscientious tourist benefits the reef that you are observing since a simple touch or kick can break and kill corals. Other methods include responsible fishing methods, responsible construction, and eliminating the use of harmful pollutants such as certain sunscreens. The future of coral reefs is in our hands. In order to save coral reefs, everyone must do their part.
Photo by #StopAdani