Coral Reefs: The Ocean’s Lesser-Known Lifelines

by Rachel Strand

 

A friend of mine who is currently studying abroad in Australia recently called me raving about a trip she had taken to the Great Barrier Reef. She couldn’t say enough wonderful things about it: the vibrant colored corals, the uniquely patterned fish. There is no doubt that coral reefs, especially the Great Barrier Reef, are extremely pleasing to the eye; however, what makes coral reefs imperative to oceanic ecosystems cannot be discerned at first glance.

Coral reefs, on the surface, appear to be colorful, bustling hotspots where sea creatures congregate. However, if we dive a little deeper, it becomes apparent that without coral reefs, many oceanic ecosystems would be destroyed. The Great Barrier Reef and other reefs makeup some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth.[1] Coral reefs provide shelter and food for a wide array of species.[2] In fact, the Great Barrier Reef is home to over 1, 600 species of fish alone.[3] Reef ecosystems depend on the necessities that the reefs provide for their tenants, and reefs are responsible for maintaining the populations of many aquatic organisms.[4] In addition to supporting all kinds of aquatic life, coral reefs also act as physical barriers that protect on- and off-shore communities from the effects of storms.[5] Reefs provide a variety of benefits that help develop and maintain a wide array of ecosystems.

Reefs and the species they support are in danger from anthropogenic activities. Human emissions of greenhouse gases, specifically carbon dioxide, have negative effects on reef ecosystems. Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have led to an increase in water temperatures, which has caused corals to overheat and subsequently expel the algae that lives within them.[6] Without this algae, the corals turn white, hence the name “coral bleaching.” If corals are submerged in warm waters for extensive periods of time, they will die out.[7] Unfortunately, the amount of mass coral bleaching events have increased in severity and frequency in recent years, worrying scientists worldwide.[8] In fact, 12% of the world’s population of coral reefs have been bleached this past year alone.[9]

Higher amounts of carbon emissions have led to increased carbon absorption by oceans. Our oceans have absorbed so much carbon dioxide that their pH levels have decreased, making them more acidic.[10] Even a small decrease in pH level can have harmful effects on vulnerable and sensitive organisms such as coral reefs. Decreases in water pH lower the calcification rate of creatures such as corals.[11] In other words, when waters are more acidic, it is harder for corals to construct their calcium carbonate skeletons, making them weaker. Ocean acidification and increased ocean temperatures are destroying coral reefs, leading to disastrous implications for the ecosystems that depend on them. Loss of coral reefs will destroy various food chains and decrease biodiversity, to the detriment of ecosystems as a whole.

However, all is not lost. We have the power to mitigate the detrimental effects that climate change has had. Many proposed solutions have the potential to stop the harmful progression of climate change. Two popular solutions are carbon sequestration and cap-and-trade programs. Carbon sequestration is the process of storing atmospheric carbon in various mediums on Earth. This includes injecting carbon into rock formations and into the ocean, storing it in soil, and fusing it with other compounds to make stable minerals.[12] Carbon sequestration is a favorable option to mitigate the effects of climate change because it effectively removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.[13] However, opponents of carbon sequestration argue that this solution is not reliable due to the risk of carbon leakage that could occur.[14] Greenpeace International has expressed their concern that even low rates of leakage could counteract reduction efforts.[15] Many feel that instead of harnessing and storing carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere, we should prevent it from entering the atmosphere in the first place.

Another solution that is more of a top-down strategy is a carbon permit trading system. This system, known as cap-and-trade, involves a distribution of carbon permits to various polluting organizations by the government. Each organization gets a certain allotment of pollution credits; if an organization pollutes less than their allotted amount, they can sell their extra permits to organizations that find it more difficult to cut back on pollution. This system is favorable because it does not involve strict government mandates—it allows the “market” to function freely while still reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[16] Additionally, the cap-and-trade system creates revenue for the government, which can be invested back into clean energy research.[17] Opponents of cap-and-trade worry that the costs of this system will be passed on to consumers and that it will encourage corporations and factories to shift to non-renewable sources of energy due to their cheaper offset.[18]

No solution is perfect, and any proposed method to fight the effects of climate change will be met with some type of opposition. However, the detrimental implications that climate change has on coral reefs and aquatic ecosystems as a whole are incontrovertible, and it is time we step up and unite for a cleaner and more sustainable future. Without active human intervention, coral reefs will die out, and the thousands of species that depend on them for survival will be doomed.

 

Claire

Thanks for your post on coral reefs; by coincidence, I was reading a post that came out on The Guardian today about the Loomis Reef, stating that the University of Adelaide researchers expected that over 50% of the reef was already dead, and only 7% had escaped bleaching (Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2016/apr/21/mourning-loomis-reef-the-heart-of-the-great-barrier-reefs-coral-bleaching-disaster).

To me, this problem of how coral reefs (and by extension, oceanic diversity) can be preserved shows a disconnect between public perception and reality. On one hand, reefs are some of the most beautiful, visible, delicate symbols of nature available; when people think of conservation, they may well immediately go to the image of a dying reef as a physical manifestation of the loss we’re facing on the biodiversity front. Similarly, areas with reefs are incentivized to take care of the reed’s natural beauty for tourism and hometown pride. Yet there are no visible solutions that the consumer, the tourist, the politician can take directly to combat reef die-out, because the main source of increased ocean temperatures is carbon pollution and climate change. And these sources aren’t easily visible or regulated, since they aren’t related to the reefs themselves.

It leads to a situation where I see many people concerned about the reef, but since the source is something so nebulous and large-scale, there are few initiatives or potential solutions to the bleaching. This topic is something I’ll definitely be coming back to in the future, especially through the end of the Paris Conference. Hopefully the news will give me more hope than the current conditions do.

Hannah

Your post couldn’t come at a better time! I was just reading an article yesterday on the state of The Great Barrier Reef. According to the article, at least 90% of the reef is bleached, with 50% dead beyond hope of recovery (http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/great-barrier-reef-half-dead-93-percent-bleached). Scientists are still hopeful that not all reefs will be lost, but many predict that if things continue as they are, coral could become an extremely rare species in no time. Perhaps this will be a wake up call to climate change and the need to curb carbon emissions for everyone, if one of the natural wonders of our world is destroyed as a result.

I like how you point out that reefs are one of the essentialities for ocean biodiversity. If they are wiped out, not only will the planet lose a variety of fish and other species that rely on coral for food and protection, but you also point out that reefs act as a buffer to protect communities from storms; if reefs are gone, could that mean that hurricanes and tsunamis will more drastically affect coastal communities?

I think that a lot of people have a hard time sympathizing for coral reefs because for a lot of people, they are far away. I think many more people don’t realize that coral are animals, and deserve as much protection as any other endangered species, so perhaps stricter MPA designations could help. I like how you propose decreased carbon emissions as a fix for coral bleaching and death. I think that solution could solve a variety of problems, and as ocean acidification and rising temperatures are affecting coral, decreased carbon emissions could have the biggest effect on saving coral reefs.

 

Reid

 

I think you make a poignant point in the beginning of your blog. It is true; people often look in awe at coral reefs due to the vibrant colors of the coral and the diversity of wildlife within the reefs. However, people do not often think about the future of these reefs nor do they know how drastically different and less diverse these reefs are compared to even 20 years ago. This is a little side note, but I think it is kind of ironic that the way people get to reefs, like the Great Barrier Reef, is causing a lot of pollution that is putting the future of these reefs at risk. Flying to Australia, driving to the reef, taking a boat out to the reef–all of these actions require fuel that poisons our environment with carbon. From personal experience of caring for saltwater aquariums in high school, I can speak to how delicate coral reef ecosystems are. If the pH in the water changed or dropped even by the smallest amount in my tanks, the coral would bleach and quickly die out…and then it was almost impossible to keep the fish in the tank that relied on the coral alive.

I have heard a lot about the threats that climate change pose on coral reefs, but before reading your blog, I had not heard of many solutions to mitigate these effects. Carbon sequestration sounds like an interesting solution, but I am curious as to how it actually works. Big picture, it seems like a solid solution, but how do the people responsible for the carbon sequestration actually capture the carbon? Is it a simple and easy enough process that the sequestering process would not end up polluting the environment more while capturing and relocating the carbon? I am also always a proponent of market-based solutions. I think that people and industries react better when they are allowed to regulate themselves within certain constraints. I agree with you when you say that cap and trade allows the market to function freely–I think market based solutions function better with capitalist societies like the US.

Overall, you draw attention to one of the lesser-known effects of climate change. I hope that if more people are made aware of the fact that now even some of the most beautiful sites our world has to offer are in jeopardy, they will take a moment and think about ways they can mitigate their negative carbon contributions.

 

[1] Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change: The Great Barrier Reef and Climate Change. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/eab369d6-76f9-46c8-beb4-aaae8ece112e/files/biodiversity-vulnerability-great-barrier-reef.pdf

[2] Great Barrier Reef gives alarm due Climate Changing. (2016, March 21). Retrieved from http://www.albanydailystar.com/science/great-barrier-reef-gives-alarm-due-climate-changing-17787.html

[3] Great Barrier Reef gives alarm due Climate Changing. (2016, March 21). Retrieved from http://www.albanydailystar.com/science/great-barrier-reef-gives-alarm-due-climate-changing-17787.html

[4] Great Barrier Reef gives alarm due Climate Changing. (2016, March 21). Retrieved from http://www.albanydailystar.com/science/great-barrier-reef-gives-alarm-due-climate-changing-17787.html

[5] Authority, G. B. M. P. (n.d.). Climate Change Impacts on Coral Reefs. Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/managing-the-reef/threats-to-the-reef/climate-change/what-does-this-mean-for-habitats/coral-reefs

[6] Hughes, T., Baird, A. ., Bellwood, D. ., Card, M., Connolly, S.R, & Folke, C. (2003). Climate Change, Human Impacts, and the Resilience of Coral Reefs. Science, 301(5635), 929–933.

[7] Australia’s Biodiversity and Climate Change: The Great Barrier Reef and Climate Change. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/eab369d6-76f9-46c8-beb4-aaae8ece112e/files/biodiversity-vulnerability-great-barrier-reef.pdf

[8] De’ath, G., Fabricius, K. E., Sweatman, H., & Puotinen, M. (2012). The 27–year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(44), 17995–17999. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1208909109

[9] Clark Howard, B. (2016, March 21). Corals Are Dying on the Great Barrier Reef. Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160321-coral-bleaching-great-barrier-reef-climate-change/

[10] Oelkers, E. H., & Cole, D. R. (2008). Carbon Dioxide Sequestration: A Solution to a Global Problem. Elements, 4(5), 305–310. http://doi.org/10.2113/gselements.4.5.305

[11] Clark Howard, B. (2016, March 21). Corals Are Dying on the Great Barrier Reef. Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160321-coral-bleaching-great-barrier-reef-climate-change/

[12] Oelkers, E. H., & Cole, D. R. (2008). Carbon Dioxide Sequestration: A Solution to a Global Problem. Elements, 4(5), 305–310. http://doi.org/10.2113/gselements.4.5.305

[13] Deutch, J., & Rochon, E. (n.d.). Should Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Technology Be Developed? Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://alternativeenergy.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=001401

[14] Deutch, J., & Rochon, E. (n.d.). Should Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Technology Be Developed? Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://alternativeenergy.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=001401

[15] Deutch, J., & Rochon, E. (n.d.). Should Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Technology Be Developed? Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://alternativeenergy.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=001401

[16] Lombardo, C. (n.d.). 6 Vital Pros and Cons of Cap and Trade. Retrieved from http://nlcatp.org/6-vital-pros-and-cons-of-cap-and-trade/

[17] Lombardo, C. (n.d.). 6 Vital Pros and Cons of Cap and Trade. Retrieved from http://nlcatp.org/6-vital-pros-and-cons-of-cap-and-trade/

[18] Lombardo, C. (n.d.). 6 Vital Pros and Cons of Cap and Trade. Retrieved from http://nlcatp.org/6-vital-pros-and-cons-of-cap-and-trade/

 

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