Coral reefs are dying out, and coastal communites will go with them

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A cruising stingray in the Cayman Islands. Photo shot by Marisa Haag.

Climate change is a complex, vast topic that stirs up mental images of melting ice caps and large factory smokestacks in the minds of many people. The constant ozone alerts, pictures of lonesome and starved polar bears, and videos of glaciers the size of Manhattan dropping off the North Pole are enough to scare anyone, except for the few critics and disbelievers. However, unbeknownst to most, an even more invisible side effect is shaking our world from the oceans up. Coral reefs are dying by the day, indirectly sending the world down a very dangerous path.

“The scale of the pollution of our oceans has become so massive that it needs to be addressed, along with issues such as climate change,” stated University of Denver freshman Caroline Field.

In addition to the dangers coral reef death poses on the global theater, the coastal communities that rely on the oceans for business will be especially devastated. How can these communities be saved?

The validity of climate change is supported by over 97% of scientists and backed by multiple studies and vast research. Within climate change, there are many different terms that become commonplace, such as the ozone layer, global warming, greenhouse gasses and the greenhouse effect. In fact, climate change is caused by the greenhouse effect and not the ozone layer, which is a common misconception.

The greenhouse effect is when solar radiation from the sun enters the atmosphere and is absorbed by the ground, warming the earth and turning into infrared radiation. The infrared radiation is re-released into the atmosphere, with some of it escaping into space and the rest trapped under the ozone layer. Ozone is a molecule that is made up of three oxygen and typically only exists high up in the atmosphere. The leftover infrared radiation is then caught in the greenhouses gases that float under the ozone layer, which raises the temperature of the atmosphere and causes a greenhouse effect on the Earth.

The recent rise in air pollution over the last century has greatly increased the number of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which then increases the amount of heat trapped. Greenhouse gases are the specific gases in the atmosphere that trap heat and reflect back the infrared radiation. The most prominent greenhouse gas is Carbon dioxide, which is produced in great amounts through burning fossil fuels and other waste. Other greenhouse gases include methane and nitrous oxide.

Carbon dioxide is the gas most spoken about in global warming. As a direct result of air pollution, carbon dioxide has one of the most prominent effects on the Earth’s atmosphere, especially the ocean and coral reefs. When the molecule falls from the atmosphere into the ocean, it binds with the seawater in a way that is highly detrimental to the ocean’s natural pH and chemical makeup.

Carbon dioxide falls to the ocean and binds with carbonate in the ocean, which is an important chemical relating to the formation of coral reefs and their makeup. The loss of carbonate means the loss of coral reefs, along with the communities that rely on them. The fish have no homes, no food and their populations die out, decreasing biodiversity to the point in which there is none left whatsoever.

Jim Fogleman, professor of molecular genetics and biology at the University of Denver stated, “It’s a trickle down effect. You lose a few species, actually a lot of species, what does that meant to the fish thats out in the ocean? Well that doesn’t mean anything to the fish in the ocean, because most of the fish are coastally organized and they rely on this food chain that starts on the reef.”

The devastation of the collapse biodiversity is long-standing and very impactful when it comes to ecosystems. Lack of biodiversity can result in multiple populations declining, genetic diseases and extinction, related in a concept called the extinction vortex. Coral reefs, as a major part of the world’s oceanic ecosystems, are already stating to lose much of their biodiversity through the affect of climate change.

“Reefs support up to 800 types of coral, 4,000 fish species, and countless invertebrates. Reef-dwelling species numbering in the hundreds of thousands may not even be catalogued yet,” wrote Charles W. Schmidt in his journal article for Environ Health Perspective in 2008.

According to the Marine Stewardship Council, over 3 billion people rely on oceanic animals for 20% of their protein intake, which is about half of the Earth’s human population.

Fogleman reiterates, “the loss of coral reefs, those areas are some of the most productive areas with respect to food that we get from the ocean. And so loss of the reefs means loss of species diversity.”

With the collapse of coral reefs, a majority of the benefits associated with reefs will also collapse. Coral reefs are natural protection for coastline against tropical storms, major sources of food and fishing commerce for many coastal communities, as well as a valuable location that provides an economic resource for tourism and hospitality work.The disappearance of these reefs will result in a major economic downfall for the coastal communities that rely on them.

Fogleman discusses the economics surrounding the collapse of coral reefs, stating, “not only is that an economic loss for those countries that depend upon tourism, nobody is going to go see a reef that is coated with algae, where the coral is all dead. Those island population and coastal populations rely on fishing as part of their major economy, that is going to collapse.””

According to NOAA, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, “every year, millions of scuba divers and snorkelers visit coral reefs to enjoy their abundant sea life. Even more tourists visit the beaches protected by these reefs.”

The reliance of these communities on coral reefs will only become increasingly disrupted by global warming and climate change. However, despite the looming doom and danger to the ocean, there are people who advocate change and want to protect the reefs.

“We are constantly our ecosystem, that ecosystem, in danger and at risk, threatening the lives of millions of different species and that could overall effect the rest of us and our lives because we rely on the ocean for things, and we shouldn’t be damaging it,” said University of Denver sophomore Joanna Fleming.

In order to save the reefs, many different countries will need to be involved. Organizations such as NOAA, Ocean Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund actively band together to save oceanic communities and the economies that rely on them.

 

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