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The coral reefs of the world are dying at an alarming rate. It is an oceanic ecological disaster in the making, and a problem that demands bold solutions. But before those solutions can come, there must first be an understanding of what role coral reefs play in the world’s ecosystems. There must also be an understanding of the role mankind has played in setting in motion the wheels of this calamity.

Renowned coral expert John “Charlie” Veron became a believer after witnessing massive chunks of the Great Barrier Reef dying off. The former Chief Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science is now convinced that ecological disaster is inevitable… and it is all due to global warming. Veron has labeled this oceanic ecological disaster “a planetary catastrophe.”

An Ecological Disaster in the Making
John Veron Discussing an Ecological Disaster in the Making

But is this disaster unavoidable? Or could innovative and bold solutions save the day? These are the questions scientists are struggling with to prevent coral reefs from dying off completely.

Coral Reefs: More Than Just a Photo Op

With their seemingly endless array of life teeming within, coral reefs have long been the “photo op” of choice for scuba divers and snorkelers alike. But there is more to these underwater organisms than just a pretty backdrop.

“Coral reefs serve many different ecosystems,” says Dr. Ilsa Kuffner, a Research Marine Biologist with the United States Geological Survey. “They’re huge suppliers of various kinds of proteins to coastal regions that depend on them for food.”

In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean resulted in a tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. But coral reefs can act as a buffer for such potentially catastrophic events. “They serve as coastline protection,” says Kuffner, “affecting the attenuation of wave energy for events that can impact coastline areas.”

Anatomy of an Ecological Disaster

Veron began diving in the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast in the 1960s. He became convinced of climate change in the 1990s when heat trapped from greenhouse gases combined with the El Nino effect to cause oceanic temperatures to rise. Once these temperatures rose above 70 degrees, coral reefs became susceptible to serious damage. The result: a “bleaching” of the reefs, with the coral expelling the symbionts that had long called it home.

“The scientific consensus is that most of the coral mortality since the 1980s is caused by temperature anomalies,” says Kuffner. “Even a couple degrees of difference can cause a breakdown of the symbiosis that occurs within the coral reefs.” She adds, “The hypothesis is that coral reefs, after bleaching, become more vulnerable to disease.”

Ilsa Kuffner discusses Great Barrier reef dying
Ilsa B. Kuffner, Ph.D. Research Marine Biologist

Thus far, over a third of the Great Barrier Reef has been affected. Worth noting is that the Great Barrier Reef is roughly the size of Italy, and since coral reefs participate in the lifecycle of nearly a third of all marine life, the impact a great “die off” can have is global in scope.

It’s no stretch to see the causal relationship between the increase of oceanic temperature and the man-made problem of global warming.

Efforts to Thwart the Disaster

The government of Australia has taken steps to save the Great Barrier Reef dying, allocating $4 million to a foundation to preserve and restore it as much as possible. But this financial investment is not likely to prevent the pending ecological disaster.

Other organizations are trying to develop solutions to the problem. The USGS, established by Congress in 1879, provides scientific research to advise decisions on the management of natural resources in US jurisdictions.

Similar efforts have been undertaken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The agency monitors oceans, major waterways, and the atmosphere while also seeking to prevent various ecological disasters. The NOAA more closely tracks the condition of national coral reefs, but it is also involved in global ecosystems. Current investigations are exploring coral reef sanctuaries where conservation and recovery efforts may offer greater success. Here again, efforts to find solutions in preventing oceanic ecological disasters have yet to find effective solutions.

What Can Be Done to Save the Coral Reefs?

Reducing carbon fuels is essential for any hope of recovery, and coal is the biggest culprit. Unfortunately, experts estimate that global warming effects on oceans would last 20 years after all carbon emissions stop.

Still, all is not doom and gloom. Sure, curbing global warming is high on the “to do” list, and that’s a task that’s proven problematic. But nature has given the world a ray of hope.

Kuffner describes a phenomenon akin to natural selection, with whole sections of bleached coral reef laying beside sections that appear unaffected. What this points to is that, similar to certain members of a species possessing an enhanced immunological response to a pathogen, so too do coral reefs sometimes have a special resilience. With more research, scientists could theoretically find a way to nurture that trait.

Says Kuffner, “This could be done in a way that capitalizes on that variability to help natural selection.”

“There’s more variability to these simple organisms than originally thought. So there is a lot of hope.” –Kuffner

While coral reefs have the potential to recover, the length of time required is significant. Experts, unfortunately, believe that five of the next seven years will see additional bouts of mass coral reef bleaching.

Bold solutions are needed to prevent the Great Barrier Reef, as well as coral reefs around the world, from dying. International collaboration and scientific solutions offer the best hope.

From massive reductions in carbon emissions to conservation and restoration efforts, several opportunities for positive change exist. But those solutions are needed immediately. It is time for bold businesses along with educational institutions and government agencies to band together to save the coral reefs from ecological disaster.

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