Reefs need relief

The world’s coral reefs “will not be there for our children to enjoy unless we change our priorities and the way we live,” writes Australian marine scientist J.E.N. Veron in a sobering piece for Yale Environment 360. The author of A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End describes how climate change, mass bleaching on major reef areas and ocean acidification are putting coral reefs on a path toward extinction.

While doomsday predictions about coral reefs have been around since at least the 1960s, Veron says “nothing comes close to the devastation waiting in the wings at the moment.” Ocean acidification can be initiated by high CO2 levels. When CO2 increases too quickly, chemical reactions can cause oceans to become less alkaline, which can jeopardize anything with calcium carbonate skeletons—from shells to crabs to phytoplankton and yes, corals. Corals have been around for most of the history of life on Earth, writes Veron, and they’ve been shown to recover from bleaching as long as further disruptions don’t occur while the ecosystem is reestablishing.

“Unfortunately, there are no signs that greenhouse gas increases are moderating, so we can assume that the frequency and severity of bleaching events will continue to increase,” explains Veron.

He says the current rate of CO2 increase has no precedent in known geological history. “On our current trajectory of increasing atmospheric CO2, we can expect that by 2030 to 2050, the acidification process will be affecting all the oceans of the world to some degree.”

He says there is no more time to wait for predictions of science to be totally verified regarding climate change.

“How many of us wish to explain to our children and children’s children that the predictions were there but we wanted confirmation?” writes Veron.

Why all the attention on coral reefs? Because they’re considered the canaries of the ocean. “The other great ecosystems of the ocean stand behind reefs like a row of dominoes,” he concludes. “If coral reefs fall, the rest will follow in rapid succession.”