Climate Change Threatens These 5 Important Coral Reefs

Climate Change Threatens These 5 Important Coral Reefs


Coral reefs are considered the “rainforests of the sea” because they host such a wide variety of animals and plants, produce so much food and provide so many essential services that make life on Earth possible.

1383665.largeThey occupy only .2 percent of the ocean, notes the Earth Institute at Columbia University, yet are home to a quarter of all marine species. Crustaceans, reptiles, seaweeds, bacteria, fungi and over 4,000 species of fish live in and around coral reefs. With an annual global economic value of $375 billion, coral reefs provide food and resources for over 500 million people in 94 countries and territories.

Coral reefs not only help protect land, they help create it, too. They can reduce the force of giant waves generated by storms and tsunamis and populate the remnants of volcanic islands once the lava cools and sinks below the waves. Just as we have found medicines hiding in rainforest plants, we may find compounds to fight disease on coral reefs.

Plus, coral reefs are spectacular. If you ever have a chance to snorkel or dive around a reef, take it (though swim carefully to avoid any damage). You’ll be amazed at the beauty and wonder a coral reef inspires.

Given how essential coral reefs are, you’d think we’d be doing everything in our power to protect them.

Not so.

Overfishing robs them of the predators, prey and “service” creatures like parrotfish and urchins that clean large algae off corals. Development of coastal areas leads to dredging that pollutes water with sunlight-blocking sediment. Runoff full of agricultural chemicals and wastewater smothers corals. Invasive species transported in the bilge water of transoceanic vessels take their tolls as well.

A particularly serious threat is posed by climate change. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are causing the oceans to warm, making them more acidic, explains

“Warm water causes bleaching episodes in which coral polyps expel the microscopic algae that live inside their tissues and nourish them. Algae provide corals’ color, so the reefs turn white. Corals can recover, but the process stresses and may kill them. Acidification, which occurs as seawater absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, reduces the amount of carbonate available for corals to build their skeletons, so reefs grow more slowly and become weaker.”

“The coral bleaching and disease, brought on by climate change and coupled with events like the current El Niño, are the largest and most pervasive threats to coral reefs around the world,” said Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator. “As a result, we are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally. What really has us concerned is this event has been going on for more than a year and our preliminary model projections indicate it’s likely to last well into 2016.”

Perhaps because they are underwater and fundamentally defenseless, coral reefs are among the planet’s most endangered ecosystems.

Here’s a snapshot of one of the five important coral reefs worldwide and the challenges they face:

Crosshatch Butterflyfish

Crosshatch Butterflyfish

The Philippines – The coral reefs of the Philippines are the second-largest in Southeast Asia. They support hundreds of species of corals and fish, all of which are endangered by direct human activity as well as climate change. The reefs lie within the Coral Triangle, which includes more than 75 percent of all coral species and 35 percent of the world’s coral reefs, reports the Union of Concerned Scientists. Their economic worth is valued at more than U.S. 2 billion annually due to the fishing, tourism and storm protection they provide. Unfortunately about 98 percent of Philippine reefs are classified as threatened. UCS says that 70 percent are at high or very high risk. Major threats come from destructive fishing methods using explosives and poison (cyanide fishing for the aquarium trade), excessive fishing, pollution runoff from logging, agriculture and urban development.

The four other coral reefs systems that face similar dangers are: Coral Necklace off Florida’s southern tip; Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; the Belize Barrier Reef System in the Western Atlantic; and The Caribbean.

What Can You Do To Help Protect Coral?

Because coral are so slow-growing and vulnerable to pollution and climate change, it’s essential to do what we can to protect them. Here are some suggestions:

• Never anchor on a reef.
• When snorkeling or diving, don’t break off pieces of coral and make sure to avoid hitting coral when you kick your fins.
• Support organic agriculture to reduce toxic runoff.
• Support policies that limit coastal development and encourage coastal communities to contain trash and stop wastewater dumping into the sea.
• Encourage elected officials to set aside coral reefs as marine sanctuaries that are protected from fishing and development.
• Volunteer with organizations working to clean up local waterways. The health of all waterways—rivers, lakes and bays—ultimately affects the ocean.
• Slow global warming by conserving energy, which includes using energy-efficient lighting and appliances and using mass transportation whenever possible.

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