Story/Opinion Piece by Jonathan Flynn.
Coral reefs have captivated the eyes of tourists and scientists alike with their astounding beauty and vibrant colors for years. However, their elegance is delicate. With the many problems that our oceans face due to climate change, corals are in growing danger. A study published in Science on January 5th has found that bleaching events are becoming more and more frequent, drastically altering reef ecosystems over time.
Reefs are slow-growing organisms that rely on zooxanthellae, tiny single-celled organisms, to survive. Zooxanthellae collect along the outside of the coral, forming a thin film that converts sunlight into energy for coral. However, when water temperatures rise above a certain threshold, the coral may become stressed and expel the organisms, and a bleaching event occurs. As a result, the coral is at a much higher risk of mortality from disease or malnutrition.
The average surface temperature of Earth has risen 1 degree Celsius since the 1880s and shows no signs of stopping. While that may not seem like much, it means life or death for many ecosystems across the globe. In the face of the seemingly infinite number of problems brought into light by global warming, it is hard to agree on any one solution. What can we do that’s effective in both conservation and cost?
The Nature Conservancy has ten steps for everyday folk to help coral reefs. Most of these focus on reduce/reuse/recycle, activism and living with an environmental conscience. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation is involved in a number of restoration projects encouraging the building of reef resistance and protecting existing reef sites. However, even with these measures, reef territory shrinks every single day. Our carbon output is just too high.
That’s the catch. For every environmental problem that arises, excessive carbon dioxide emissions are often the culprit. While pledges like the Paris Agreement make governments feel like they’re headed in the right direction, the fact is that these emissions are not going away. They’re growing at a faster rate every year and there is no single, comprehensive plan in place to halt or slow them.
What are people doing about this? Scientists at the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have begun adding artificial reefs in the shape of cube frames to provide an additional foundation for coral-dependent organisms to thrive upon. While this doesn’t address the carbon dioxide problem, it’s a step in preserving and expanding a fragile yet essential ecosystem. As of January 2018, the Australian government will be investing $60 million into protecting the Great Barrier Reef to address damages from cyclones and coral bleaching. They will focus on reducing the impact of invasive species like crown-of-thorns starfish, pollution, and boosting the number of field personnel directly caring for and monitoring coral health.
In the face of ever-rising carbon dioxide emissions, nations around the globe are re-evaluating the statuses of their native ecosystems. As of 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List stated that nearly a quarter of all mammals on Earth are threatened or extinct. It’s not going to get much better. In many cases, conservation has become less of a question about how a species can be saved and more about which species can be saved.