The Eradication of Coral Reefs: Climate Change and Other Harmful Human Practices May Destroy the World’s Most Diverse Ecosystems Forever

The Eradication of Coral Reefs:

Climate Change and Other Harmful Human Practices

May Destroy the World’s Most Diverse Ecosystems

By Cynthia Quattrocchi


Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, but they are on the verge of extinction. Over the last 30 years, our planet has lost 50% of its corals and coral reefs are disappearing at an increasing rate.[1] Climate change and other local threats such as pollution and harmful fishing practices are destroying coral reefs. The eradication of coral reefs across the planet would be especially detrimental for over half a billion people who rely on those reefs for their livelihood and food source.[2] If we do not implement individual, federal, and global initiatives to save these vital ecosystems, our planet will suffer from immense environmental and economic impacts.


Some reefs around the world have already been entirely destroyed, while others, like the Great Barrier Reef, are under intense threat from harmful human practices. Over 90% of coral reefs are expected to disappear by 2050.[3] Rapid, human-induced climate change is one of the greatest threats to the wellbeing of the world’s coral reefs. Climate change will negatively affect coral reefs through many factors, but specifically ocean acidification. Ocean acidification means that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is dissolving in the ocean, making the water more acidic. Ocean acidification will eventually decrease the capacity of corals to create suitable habitats for marine species.[4]


Harmful fishing practices near coral reefs across the planet as well as an increase in pollution may lead to the depletion of keystone species—species that an ecosystem depends on so much that it would drastically change if a keystone species were to be removed. This would thereby impact the reef habitats, associated species, and ecosystems. Many factors contributing to these unsustainable fishing practices and pollution are an increase in human population growth and inadequate management of coastlines and fisheries located near coral reefs.[5] These factors greatly affect the wellbeing of coral reefs through the overexploitation of marine species, complete removal of keystone species, by-catch of non-target marine species, and physical damages to the reef structures associated with harmful fishing practices and pollution.[6]


In addition to the environmental impacts of the extinction of coral reefs, there are also crucial issues surrounding economic and health impacts. Coral reefs have been estimated at a value of $1 trillion dollars, generating at least $300-400 billion each year in food and livelihoods—including tourism, fishing, and medicines.[7] Over half a billion people in some of the world’s developing countries rely on coral reefs for their livelihoods, culture, food source, and nutrition. A quarter of the fish in the ocean live on coral reefs, meaning that if the trend of a decrease in coral reefs continues over the next few decades, those millions of people will lose access to a major food source, leaving developing countries disproportionately more vulnerable.[8]


However, there is hope for success in protecting the planet’s coral reefs. To accomplish this, it is crucial to attempt to reduce the effects of climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and pollution through policy development and enforcement. While the future of coral reefs may look bleak, if we are able to catalyze global action now, it is possible to save this beautiful, diverse ecosystem.


Perhaps the most important step to take in protecting coral reefs is the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere in an attempt to help alleviate the effects of climate change, specifically ocean acidification, on coral reefs.[9] One important proposed solution to help stop the effects is carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration is the process of storing atmospheric CO2 in deep underground rock formations. These formations are often found beneath the ocean surface and have the ability to store and trap CO2, preventing it from migrating upwards. Sequestration thereby removes CO2 from the atmosphere and alleviates some of the effects on coral reefs. However, critics of carbon sequestration argue that sequestration is not a reliable form of CO2 removal because of the possibility of carbon leakage. Any amount of leakage could run the risk of interfering with or counteracting other reduction efforts.[10] While sequestration could be a beneficial method of removing CO2 from the atmosphere, it would be better to create a more long-term solution by preventing CO2 from entering the atmosphere to begin with.[11] This is why limiting emissions of CO2 is so imperative to reduce the effects of climate change on coral reefs.


Another proposed solution is a cap-and-trade system on carbon permits. In this solution, the government would distribute carbon permits to any polluting companies or organizations. If a company emits less than their allotted amount, they are able to sell any extra permits to other companies struggling to cut down their emissions.[12] This system would incentivize polluters to reduce their emissions for economic gain while earning revenue for the government with little government involvement after the initial permit distribution.[13] However, critics of cap-and-trade believe that the major costs of the system will land on the consumers. It also may encourage polluters to shift to non-renewables since it may be the cheaper option.[14]


Furthermore, it is crucial to mandate pollution and harmful fishing practices as soon as possible. If we were able to control the impacts on coral reefs not related to climate change, it would provide a sort of buffer zone to help protect the reefs until CO2 emissions are successfully reduced.[15] By increasing the health of the reefs by mandating harmful practices not related to climate change, the reefs would be better prepared to handle the impacts from climate change.[16]


It is imperative that government and non-government organizations take immediate action to protect the planet’s most diverse ecosystems from extinction. While the future of coral reefs may seem disheartening, there has been a move toward action, and therefore, a hope for the survival of the world’s coral reefs. With further global action and increased awareness, it is possible to save this beautiful, crucial ecosystem before it is too late. However, it requires cooperation and increased motivation.


Aedan: I think you do a great job of diving into, and finding new information on, an environmental disaster that we have known about for so long. Many people know that our coral reefs are imperiled and that climate change is killing them, but I don’t think many people truly understand how devastated our coral reefs and the surrounding communities are. I believe that both of your proposed solutions are effective ways to combat climate change and save our coral reefs, but I worry that if a cap and trade system or carbon sequestration system is not adopted on a global scale then its impacts will be minimal. Unfortunately, with the current Trump Administration it appears that we as a country are moving away from these possible solutions to climate change and coral destruction. However, the immediacy of the issue requires action and I believe you address that very nicely.
Climate Change harm reduction is the most important thing when it comes to the health of reefs, but I’m glad you mentioned local factors such as overfishing. Possible solutions to this that I believe are viable are marine protected areas as well as stakeholder based solutions. If a country or locality is not willing to claim a reef as a marine protected area due to economic harms, stakeholder solutions would be the most effective solution. Reducing reliance on these areas for food and livelihoods or helping to educate local populations on the detrimental effects of overfishing on fish stocks could help the overall health of the reef systems. Stakeholder involvement is important in this case because everyone has to believe in the system in order to avoid exploitation of the reef. Great blog post on a very important issue.


Lukas G.:
I think a key factor in tackling climate change is proving to people the deep economic effects it will have on society. You did a nice job of highlighting this fact in regards to its effects on the fishing industry that the loss of coral reefs would cause. I do think that this may be difficult for the US tackle though because of Trump’s recent Executive Order that only takes into account the social cost of carbon on the United States into its climate policy (which is obviously awful). It worries me because, as one of the largest emitters of carbon, we are bringing harm on to other developing countries who have a minimal carbon footprint. It is a case of the United States continuing to exploit developing nations and push them further into the poverty cycle. Really great job on the post!!


Brianna comment:
This was a very well done and comprehensive blog post. I have learned about ocean acidification in other classes, but was unaware of the tenant that it was causing losses of coral. I am curious if there are ways to save coral, similar to that of endangered species. That would seem to be tricky as the middle of the ocean isn’t technically owned or governed by any single country. This overall problem really shows the extent that climate change is having on the earth and should be highlighted more to show the immense damages that are occurring. This is especially critical because many people enjoy scuba diving and viewing the coral, therefore they might hold a greater enjoyment value from the coral than other climate change effects on the environment. I hope there are more actions to limit climate change and save many species, plants, and coral reefs.


Luke B. comment:
This was a very informative post. I knew coral reefs were dying off because of global warming, but I never knew ocean acidification was the actual cause for so much damage. I also never thought of the damage that fishing can cause on these ecosystems. Coral reefs are one of the most important ecosystems both for the life that lives there, and for the revenue they generate. Unfortunately, since most of their destruction comes from global warming, they are extremely difficult to protect. Protecting this valuable resource will require a worldwide effort to reduce climate change and protect the coral reefs that are still alive.


Jack M. comment:
This is definitely one of the most pressing environmental issues facing us, and you really captured the sense of urgency necessary to communicate to those who want to do something. I knew generally about ocean acidification and global ocean temperature increases leading to coral die-offs, but I had no idea about the more local issues compounding the problem. It is especially pertinent and insightful to bring up ways that we can extend our buffer for these ecosystems, given the current political climate, it is unlikely that we will be able to successfully reduce out carbon output substantially for a long time.

Tommy comment:
Coral reef destruction is an important issue considering how pressing it is. Reef destruction is already widespread and poses a huge threat to the fishing industry. While climate change is probably the biggest contributor to reef destruction, ocean pollution due to improper waste management is another major factor. Runoff, agricultural waste, septic waste, and chemical spills all contribute to eutrophication. I think the most productive thing we can do as a country is tighten regulations of industrial waste management. This may be difficult to implement with the current administration, but it is imperative that progress be made soon. Maybe it will take a full-blown environmental crisis to sway Congress on this issue, but by then it may be too late.

Literature Cited

[1] “A Global Plan to Save Coral Reefs from Extinction.” Bloomberg Philanthropies. Bloomberg Group, 23 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5]”Corals in Crisis.” NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. NOAA, 6 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Corals in Crisis.” NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. NOAA, 6 Mar. 2017. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Biello, David. “Can Carbon Capture Technology Be Part of the Climate Solution?” Yale Environment 360. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 8 Sept. 2014. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Kaufman, Noah. “Carbon Tax vs. Cap-and-Trade: What’s a Better Policy to Cut Emissions?” World Resources Institute . World Resources Institute , 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Kaufman, Noah. “Carbon Tax vs. Cap-and-Trade: What’s a Better Policy to Cut Emissions?” World Resources Institute . World Resources Institute , 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.
[15]Lemos, Eirini. “Coral reefs are ‘likely to disappear from the Earth’ despite climate change talks.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 18 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.