As the Paris Climate Talks are underway, let’s revisit how coral reefs are being dramatically impacted by climate change and how experts propose to save the reefs.
What is Coral Bleaching?
As water temperatures heat up, the sensitive corals react by expelling their symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae, leaving only a white carbonate skeleton and dying coral polyps behind. The algae reside within the coral not only giving it beautiful coloring, but providing vital Oxygen and Glucose to the coral through the process of photosynthesis. In return the corals undergo cellular respiration, producing Carbon Dioxide that is used by the algae. However, without the algae inhabiting the reef, corals will soon die transforming a once bustling and colorful reef into a barren wasteland.
The ocean is the largest Carbon sink in the world, meaning it removes vast amounts of Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere by absorbing it into the water column. Ocean acidification is a byproduct of climate change, and has resulted in the degradation of coral reef’s carbonate skeletons. The main threat to coral reefs says Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, Emily Darling, is mass coral bleaching.
Will Coral Bleaching Kill all Reefs?
Through a collaboration of more than 100 scientists who have surveyed thousands of reefs worldwide, new research reveals that some reefs are resilient and can cope with climate change. These corals have been deemed “super corals” that can endure coral bleaching events because of their genetic makeup and location in areas of “climate refuge”. Areas deemed as “climate refuges” or “cool spots” are locations that seem to have escaped a majority of climate change effects and continue to thrive. One such area, the Raja Ampat archipelago in Indonesia, is an upwelling site that prevents overly warm water from surrounding the reef and triggering a bleaching event. Work is actively being done to preserve what we have left, and restore reefs that have already started to deteriorate.
Are Corals Being Addressed at the Paris Climate Talks?
There are a variety of marine conservationists and coral experts present in Paris, advocating for protection of reefs worldwide. The, “International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS) has called on all nations and negotiators at the Paris Climate Change Conference to commit to limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations to no more than 450 ppm in the short-term, and reducing them to 350ppm in the long-term” in order to preserve reefs. Besides the science the experts brought with them, they are collaborating with smaller, developing countries that more directly depend on the reefs. These less developed, coastal countries’ economy and culture has grown out of their dependence on coral reefs.
These coastal communities are not primarily responsible for climate change that is largely driven by industrial nations, but they are still experience the consequences. Rising sea levels, coral bleaching, and a decrease in biodiversity and fishing stocks have all impacted the local and world economies. It needs to be recognized that money spent in the short run to transition to cleaner energy and development will truly pay off in the long run, by building a more sustainable global community. Many of these small countries provide ideal examples of how successful and profitable it can be for an unsustainable fishing community to transition to eco-tourism and sustainable fishing operations.
The experts attending have made it a goal to demonstrate the economic impacts of the loss of coral reefs. Firstly, 25% of migratory fish inhabit coral reefs. This equates to millions of fish who call the reef home, many of them being schooling fish or migratory species that fisherman rely on and target. Therefore if there are no more coral reefs these popular fish that are harvested by humans, will no longer exist in sustainable numbers. Additionally, in the United States alone $30 billion of revenue are brought in annually as a result of goods and services connected to the coral reefs. This includes all seafood harvested from reefs, eco-tourism activities, and recreational fishing, among other industries. Therefore when a reef bleaches, all signs of life including the fish abandon the reef, and force fisherman to travel farther to catch fish. Globally, 500 million people live in areas where both their culture and livelihoods are directly connected to healthy coral reefs. The loss of reefs, with Carbon Dioxide emission left unrestricted, puts millions of jobs and communities at risk in addition to the ocean ecosystem. There are high hopes among conservationists, scientists, and those already seeing the effects of climate change on their livelihoods on an international agreement being reached in Paris to aid in reef preservation.