Coral Reefs-the canary in the coal mine
Yurts at Poncha Pass - Colorado Yurt Rentals and Sustainable Building Workshops - Photo of Chris in ground of Earthship

Written by Chris

March 7, 2013

Over the course of the last two months, I have been able to take a class on tropical coral reefs as well as visit those reefs found off the island of Curacao this past January to conduct research. I was lucky enough to scuba dive 25 times in the 25 days I was there in an attempt to learn and conduct a study on reef complexity. In many regards, the experience confirmed for me why I initially found myself fascinated with the world’s oceans back when I did my first research project on the Blue Whale in 4th grade.

IMG_6160The coral reef, like so many other ocean ecosystems is made up of a mosaic of creatures, alien to that found on land. The shifting color schemes, close and numerous symbiotic interactions, and the fact that if you look off a reef into the deep blue, the endless space stretching out before oneself impresses the sheer beauty and intrinsic value of nature. It is also a very important ecosystem in regards to our oceans. While coral reefs only occupy 1% of the world’s oceans, they are also home to roughly a quarter of all ocean sea life.

West point

Courtesy of my dive buddy Robin

The plastic we use creates a huge problem for coastal ecosystems

But what seems to inherently accompany nature in the 21st century is the very real and prevalent threat to its very existence. The coral reef has been classified by the UN as the most endangered ecosystem in the world and with good reason. The United Nations “System Earth Watch” recently found that 58% of coral reefs globally, are threatened by human derived impacts (2).

There are two fundamental factors leading to coral reef degradation from what I can see that highlight how coral reefs are acting as canaries in the coal mine for life on earth. The first is ocean acidification.  The ocean absorbs roughly a third of our daily emissions and as we produce more CO2, it continues to react with water at an ever increasing rate to create a more acidic state. The lowering of ocean PH from this CO2 absorption causes calcium carbonate, the fundamental building block of corals to break down or dissolve. This process thereby makes it extremely difficult for corals to grow or maintain themselves.

A second factor is rising ocean temperatures often associated with extreme warming events and stratification of ocean layers. Corals depend on algae to produce food within the coral in exchange for shelter and protection. When the water temperature rises, the corals can’t survive with the algae or Zooxanthellae and ejects the algae. If the coral remains long enough without the Zooxanthellae, the coral will die. In 1998, it was estimated that a massive coral bleaching event destroyed 16% of all coral reefs (1).

The one thing that is common to these negative trends is that they are systemic effects driven by no single human action, but our collective actions on a global scale.  This means that there is no silver bullet to solving this problem or many of the other problems facing our various ecosystems, unless we as a collective global community put real effort forward and endorse that same attempt from those around us. Only then will we start to see a difference.

1.)           Alvarez-Filip, L., Gill, J. A., Dulvy, N. K., Perry, A. L., Watkinson, A. R., & Coté, I. M. (2011). Drivers of region-wide declines in architectural complexity on Caribbean reefs. Coral reefs, 30(4), 1051-1060.

2.)           Bryant, Dirk, Lauretta Burke, John McManus and Mark Spaulding. 1998. Reefs at Risk: A Map-Based Indicator of Threats to the World’s Coral Reefs. WRI/ICLARM/WCMC/UNEP. World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C., 1998 56 p.

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