The mood at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Cairns, Australia was glum, as more than 2,000 marine experts from more than 80 countries reached a single conclusion: the state of the world’s coral reefs has gone from “worrisome to dire.”
And the prognosis is grim. By 2050, scientists expect half of the planet’s remaining coral reefs to suffer severe bleaching if policy makers don’t implement strategies to protect them. The scientists did also note, however, that if bleaching does not last too long, healthy corals can recover.
Despite the sliver of optimism, the experts stand by their call to action, urging local and national governments to join the environmental battle, and maintaining that the scientific community will stand behind them.
“It will take strong leadership by policy makers to make changes to protect reefs. We want them to know we are here to help, to provide the science to support those changes,” said Stephen Palumbi, director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University, in an interview with the Inter Press Service.
“We have the science to defend those decisions. There is very good data on how to protect reefs and we know what works.”
But scientists know that while environmentally friendly, “what works” isn’t necessarily politically popular. Strategies to protect coral reefs often involve constraints on fishing, pollution, and coastal development, which tend to slow local economies.
The experts retort, however, that what might slow economies now will likely save them from collapsing in the future.
“Corals are extraordinarily valuable to humanity,” said Jane Lubchenco, head of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “A study from Belize estimated that without reefs protecting the shoreline, storms would cause 240 million dollars in damages.”
She went on to add that approximately 2.6 billion people rely on seafood as their main source of protein—seafood that’s protected by coral reefs, which serve as nurseries and habitats for many fish.
And the marine experts also agree on where to point fingers: CO2 emissions. According to The “Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs,” “CO2 emissions at the current rate will warm sea surface temperatures by at least 2-3°C, raise sea-level by as much as 1.7 meters, reduce ocean pH from 8.1 to less than 7.9, and increase storm frequency and/or intensity. This combined change in temperature and ocean chemistry has not occurred since the last reef crisis 55 million years ago.”
The deadly combination of acidification and warming will leave oceans—and coral reefs—more vulnerable than ever. In fact, by 2070, the scenario gets even bleaker: 90% of the world’s coral reefs are expected to die.
The only hope? A stream of eco-conscious policies all over the globe. And if not…well, there just may not be anymore coral reefs to save.
Photo Credit: http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Coral_reef_at_palmyra.jpg