Home to over a million different species, from eye-catching clown-fish to spiny sea urchins, coral reefs are among the most traveled locations in the world. Thousands of people flock to coral reef areas each year to gaze at the magnificent array of color hiding under the water’s surface. However, these beautiful ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate, due to a phenomenon called 'bleaching'.
Coral reefs are essential for any coastal environment. With over 4,000 different species of fish living in and around them, not only do coral reefs host more species per unit area than any other marine environment, they act as a primary source of food for over 100 million people. They also serve as a form of natural coastal protection. Rough waters and storms take the brunt of their furry out on the coral reefs positioned away from the coast, causing them to slow down significantly before reaching the shore. Coral reefs also impact the people who live farther inland by offering advancements in medicine. Many of the latest medication developments were contributions from coral reef environments. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are between 1 and 8 million species of animals living in reefs that are still undiscovered. These unknown species could lead scientists to new developments in cures for cancer and vaccinations for other viruses and bacterial infections. With tourist industries booming in these reef areas, it's easy to see how coral reefs could account for nearly $36 billion of the worlds economic value.
As vibrant and full of life these reefs may be, they are still a delicate ecosystem and react to the smallest changes in their environments. When a coral is under stress, whether it be to changes in water temperature, light or food availability, they expel a type of algae living in their soft tissues. The secretion of the algae causes the coral to lose its spectacular color and turn white; this is called Coral Bleaching. The algae and the coral need each other to live, so when the algae begin leaving the coral, the coral loses most of its nutrition and life support. The bleached coral is still alive, however, with fewer algae living inside them, they tend to have much higher mortality rates. Over the last 35 years, 80% of the coral in the Caribbean and about 50% of coral in the Pacific was destroyed due to bleaching. Some of the most influential bleaching events from these years were in conjunction with El-Nino (1982 and 1998). However, globally, coral is dying at a rate of 1% a year. The mass bleaching is leading many experts to believe we are facing one of the most significant extinctions in the history of our planet.
With all the support, life, food sources, industry, and revenue coral reefs provide to human life; it is easy to understand how the death of these ecosystems could be massively disruptive to the world. Some experts predict that if all coral reefs were to disappear, poverty, famine, and political instability would be rampant across the globe. Bleak right? Well, as big of a problem coral bleaching might seem, there are a few things you can do to help have a positive impact on the reef. The Nature Conservancy released a list of 10 things you can do that will help save the reefs. The list can be found here and includes things like using less water and supporting reef safe businesses. With the support of more in-landers, the coral reefs will have a much better chance of surviving. That's why spreading awareness is so critical and one of the most accessible things to do for people far removed from the shore.
Written by Shelby Shoup
Image by Dominic Gianetti