Coral reefs are dying

It’s difficult to overstate the value of coral reefs, and it’s easy to underestimate their importance.

The Beam
The Beam
Dec 5, 2017 · 5 min read

Key stats:

  • 25%: The amount of marine life support by coral reefs
  • A$56billion: The economic value of the Great Barrier Reef alone
  • 22%: The percentage of coral reef that died from bleaching in 2016

All around the world, coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate. In 2016 and 2017 the Great Barrier Reef was hit by back-to-back mass coral bleaching events, the first time this has ever happened. Mass bleaching events are not a wholly new phenomenon, and the Great Barrier Reef experienced them in 1998 and 2002, but this is the first time they have occurred is such close succession.

Coral bleaching is what happens when the marine algae, which live inside corals and give them their wonderful colour, die off, revealing the white skeleton of the coral. Corals are very sensitive to temperature, and when the water temperature increases too much, this kills off the algae and causes the bleaching.

The consequences are catastrophic. 22% of the coral reef died as a result of the 2016 bleaching, and with the next bleaching event happening in such close proximity, the remaining coral has not been given enough time to recover. It can take decades for coral to effectively bounce back from a bleaching event, and with events happening at increasing frequency reefs are being given less and less chance to thrive and survive.

It’s difficult to overstate the value of coral reefs, and it’s easy to underestimate their importance.

It’s difficult to overstate the value of coral reefs, and it’s easy to underestimate their importance. In terms of wildlife, coral reefs support 25% of all marine life. If the coral reefs die, the knock on effect for ocean life and the ecosystem is catastrophic. From an economic standpoint, the Great Barrier Reef alone has a value of A$56 billion and supports 64,000 jobs. When you extend this to the number of jobs and livelihoods that all coral reefs are integral to, then it’s clear the death of the reefs is an urgent crisis to address.

An increase in water temperatures can be caused by a natural phenomenon (such as El Nīno conditions), but the recent coral bleaching events are almost certainly the result of human-made climate change bringing about higher ocean temperatures. Globally, the temperature of the ocean has increased by around 1.5 degrees fahrenheit since the late 19th century. As the climate continues to get hotter we will see more frequent coral bleaching events. The amount of carbon dioxide produced by human activity also contributes greatly to death of coral by increasing the acidification of the oceans. A high percentage of the CO2 produced by humans is absorbed by the oceans, decreasing the pH value of the water.

We need to sit up and take notice, see the signs for what they are, and take action before it really is too late.

We need to address climate change before it’s too late

To address the problems and threats posed to the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian government launched the Reef 2050 Plan. This plan is designed to help secure the long-term health of the reef, and assess what short-term and medium-term measures can be taken. However, the mass bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 now indicate that meeting the aims of this plan are no longer tenable, and the reason is climate change.

The core issue is that climate change is a global phenomenon that all of humanity is contributing to, and the death of coral reefs are localised effects. Policies in Australia may help to mitigate some of the effects on the Great Barrier Reef, but to save the reefs we need a worldwide effort to reduce carbon emissions and slow the progress of climate change.

Other coral reefs around the world are experiencing challenges. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef faces threats from too much tourism and overfishing, but it’s not beyond saving as yet. The New Caledonia Barrier Reef was hit with losses of 10 to 20 percent in some areas in 2016 due to coral bleaching, but overall it is in relatively good health. One coral reef is able to report good news. The Red Sea Coral Reef is proving to be the most resistant to climate change, and is said to be the last reef that will be affected by it. However, the Florida Reef is in big trouble. According to scientists, only 10 percent of the reef is now covered with living coral.

Mass bleaching events are an early warning sign of the impact of climate change. We need to sit up and take notice, see the signs for what they are, and take action before it really is too late.

Further Reading: Related Start Ups and Organizations

This series of articles has been prepared with the support of our partner Viessmann — they’re celebrating 100 years of their company this year (2017) and are actively involved in positively shaping the next 100 years.


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