Perhaps you remember the craze of late 2016 surrounding the alleged death of the Great Barrier Reef. News articles and viral tweets popped up with phrases like "The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old" and mummers of defeated voices spreading have-you-heards trickled through the hallways. It was an eerie feeling. It seemed we'd all just lost a war most of us didn't know we were fighting, and we all had blood on our hands.
As it turns out, much to everyone's relief, the reef wasn't actually demolished entirely, but a solid 50% was. Scientists had been warning of coral bleaching and reef death for many years prior, but the headlines just weren't quite sensational enough. The media created a clickable headline, and spread a rush of fear through the public, along with a distrust for science.
Here's the truth. The Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs globally ARE in danger. At current rates of bleaching, a striking 90% of the world's coral are expected to die. Humans have yet to witness the extinction of an entire ecosystem, and it is difficult to predict the extent that an event like this would affect us. It would be undeniably drastic, affecting entire oceanic food chains, shoreline water patterns, and tourism.
So what's going on? Is it your sunscreen? Well, sort of. Many conventional sunscreens contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, known to cause damage to reefs. Many coastal. areas have taken measures to ban these sunscreens, But sunscreen bans won't fix our coral reefs. Its sort of like weeding a vegetable garden that is being eaten by rabbits. Yes, removing the weeds helps foster plant growth, but there is a much bigger issue causing harm to the crops. In the case of coral bleaching, that issue is temperature.
Let's back track a bit to understand what coral is. Corals are an animal that participates in a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a type of algae. The structure is made of polyps, tiny individual animals, attaching to the skeletons of dead polyps, eventually growing to extensive reefs. The live polyps capture some floating nutrients, but rely primarily on the algae inside, converting sunlight to food. The polyps themselves are colorless; the algae provides most of the coloration we associate with reefs. When conditions become adverse, the polyps reject their algae, leaving the white skeleton all that is visible. If conditions do not allow for algae to re-inhabit the polyps, the coral dies.
It turns out, the organisms that compose coral have a narrow range of tolerance. The optimal range for growth is between 73 and 77 °F. Slight rises in temperature can push corals in to ranges of stress, and it turns out the 2 °F warming we've experienced today is plenty enough to do so. With warmer average temperatures, highs have been, well, higher, and heat waves sweeping through tropical zones are causing bleaching epidemics. And the likeliness of recovery from these events is slims.
As with the sunscreen, other issues compile to weaken coral ecosystems and inhibit their ability to recover from bleaching events. The ocean acts as the largest natural carbon sink, meaning it absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide. An estimated 1/3 of atmospheric carbon is absorbed by the ocean. As the amounts of carbon increase in the atmosphere, thus do the oceanic concentrations. This contributes to a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Acidic water makes building calcium carbonate skeletons difficult, in turn slowing the recovery rate of corals further.
Coral growth also requires sunlight, so high concentrations of plastic particulates inhibit the light from reaching the reefs. Since the algae is photosynthetic, it requires sunlight to survive, and decreased amounts of light can severely weaken the animal, effectively starving it.
In addition, heavy tourism, shipping routes, and runoff pesticides and fertilizers wear on the strength of coral reefs. It is important to take all these aspects into consideration when considering the recovery of reefs.
It all sounds very daunting, I know, but I'd like to return to the good news, they aren't dead yet! We can make a difference to this beautiful and diverse ecosystem. One of the main ways you can help it through education. Keep yourself informed on the topic, and always share with others. Follow reef safe sunscreen recommendations.Support conservation efforts, beach clean ups, and eco friendly businesses. Invest in renewable energy and look for ways to decrease your carbon footprint. Let your local lawmakers know you care about carbon. And of course, always be mindful of your impact.
Check out Chasing Coral to learn more.
Natural living enthusiast, beach bum, waste-reduced, environmentalist, plant-based, student, artist, yogi, plant mom, Virgo, human, soul