Coral Crisis: Bleached Reefs Due to Global Warming

coral-bleaching-catlin-seaview-1Living on an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean is a tropical luxury. We are surrounded on all sides by a vast ocean full of life, balance, and vibrance. But, you know what they say: what sounds too good to be true, often is. Right now, we are in the midst of the worst episode of coral bleaching in history. In total this is the third coral bleaching disaster our earth has seen, and scientists are worried about the future of our ocean life. Imagine taking a dive into the cool waters of one of our idyllic beaches and expecting to find intricate reefs adorned with delicate shells and curious creatures, or harmonious schools of fish slicing skillfully through the water. Now, imagine looking around you and seeing nothing but sand, debris, and rocks in an area that was once teeming with life. It’s disillusioning to think that the future may turn out this way if we don’t do our part in preserving coral reefs and our earth. As citizens and islanders especially, we have the responsibility of protecting these reefs because corals are absolutely necessary for marine stability and health, scientific research, and tourism.

Corals are living organisms that start off as polyps and gradually excrete the calcified exoskeleton we are used to identifying them by. These exoskeletons make excellent homes for marine algae (also called zooxanthellae), which use the coral’s protective surface to live in. Corals make ideal habitats for zooxanthellae because of their close proximity to the surface of the ocean and, essentially, the sun. The zooxanthellae are able to photosynthesize easily and share much of the nutrients from that with the coral, making them a symbiotic pair. The zooxanthellae are also responsible for the coloration of corals. Coral bleaching occurs when the corals are under stress from environment, namely the rising temperatures from global warming. When the water gets too warm, the coral forces its zooxanthellae out so that it may focus on basic survival, thus returning it to its white or “bleached” skeletal appearance.

The reason that our corals are in such distress at this time has to do with global warming. Our earth only seems to be getting hotter because of the carbon dioxide we are constantly emitting into the atmosphere. While the atmosphere already contains its own balance of greenhouse gasses that includes carbon dioxide, adding copious amounts of more carbon to the atmosphere makes it increasingly difficult for nature to filter and process. Not only that, but carbon dioxide is also a heat-trapping gas which accounts for the rise of global warming. Humans use carbon-emitting gasses on a daily basis, whether it be for transportation, electricity, or industrial usage. If we don’t limit our use of fossil fuels, temperatures will only rise, thus killing off miles of coral reefs and marine life.

But what about the valuable investments in fossil fuels? Lots of money is invested and made in the fossil fuel industry and it’s a commodity worldwide. It’s argued that the money in fossil fuels is much too lucrative to simply do away with. Billions of dollars go into funding for fossil fuel industries and while it puts jobs on the market and dinner on the table, it won’t last very long. The access we have to fossil fuels is beginning to dwindle and that draws insidious possibilities for the future. Eventually, we will suffer environmentally and economically as we cannot exhaust finite resources. When we reach the point where all of our fossil fuels have been used, the atmosphere will likely be in turmoil. There is no question that global warming is upon us or that it is affecting our reefs, but we need to start showing people why they need to be involved in order to protect the state of our environment.

University of Chicago economics professor Michael Greenstone calculated the estimated damage if we were to actually use up all of our fossil fuels, and the result was a shocking 16.2 degrees hotter. To put things in perspective, since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, the earth’s temperature has raised only 1.7 degrees— and even that has been enough to cause droughts, rising sea levels, crippling heat waves, and many other disastrous climate problems. The money in fossil fuels may be good now, but it is not going to stay that way. Once we run out of fossil fuels, the economy will likely suffer as well, as fossil fuels are a valuable finite resource. If large corporations continue to reject the idea of a more environmentally friendly approach, sea levels and sea temperatures are sure to kill off corals. The global climate is already proving to be too much for them and it’s not hard to imagine what will happen if things only continue get worse. Coral reefs will die off, marine animals will lose a vital habitat, biodiversity will suffer, and the general balance of the ocean’s nutrients will be corrupted. Scientist and environmentalist Tim Flannery visited the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef. Flannery documented that at least 90% of the coral reef had been negatively affected and that miles of corals stretched across the ocean bleached and dying. In a survey of the 520 reefs that line the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, only four remained unbleached. Global warming is not something that will go away if one ignores it hard enough. It is an increasing problem that is severely time sensitive. Its effects are strenuous on reef life and threaten to kill off thousands of coral reefs that easily took decades to grow. In order to solve this crisis, we need to educate the public on the reality of global warming, and also need to adequately fund environmentalist agencies and organizations in order for them to have the proper resources for protecting our coral reefs and essentially our planet. A study done recently surveyed over 6,000 reefs globally and their health statuses and showed that 13 of those that were doing worse than expected were around the state of Hawai’i, including 6 on O’ahu. Community efforts in our islands have proven to be conducive to solving this coral bleaching crisis, however, more people and more funds need to be implemented in order to make a significant difference.

Money is always an issue when it comes to large scale problems, and it’s easy to argue that too much money is being invested into environmental organizations. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently cut funding for the Climate Commission, an organization that aimed to ultimately protect and reduce our carbon footprint. Abbott argued that global warming has been “happening since the beginning of time” and that it was unnecessary to “impose certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future.” Abbott’s dismissal of scientific research and evidence is something that is all too common in certain politicians’ discourse. At this point, it is not so much the problem of lacking in evidence but a problem in the way authority figures address global warming. Whether or not Abbott has had sufficient evidence exposed to him or not, his mindset remains in efforts to control spending on scientific research and discovery. A large-scale problem like global warming is a colossal issue. It takes a lot of research to entirely wrap your head around, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to comprehend its threat. When politicians and lawmakers focus on superficial spending and try to cut corners by shaving off budgets of conducive research programs, it sets us back in our quest to try and protect the earth we live on. Our duty as citizens is to contact policymakers and authority figures and show them just how necessary these organizations are.

Living in Hawaii means beach trips are a regular event for most residents, and we need to turn that accessibility into something that benefits our beautiful reefs in return. As citizens, putting in any effort is helpful in the long run. For example, it has been found that a chemical in sunscreens called oxybenzone negatively affects corals by altering their DNA, thus creating coral offspring that are unable to reproduce. To keep our reefs free of toxins, it’s advised to stick to rash guards rather than excess amounts of sunscreen. Limiting the use of sunscreen is already a place to start. In order to spread this message, however, proper organizations require proper funding. Bob Richmond, director of the University of Hawaii Kewalo Marine Laboratory, explains, “The Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, which aimed to protect coral reefs and create programs to manage their conservation, has been plagued by political resistance and a severe lack of funding.” Adequate funding for environmentalist organizations is key in spreading awareness and educating the public. Coral reefs are vital for scientists to study in order to get an accurate account of the state of the earth’s climate crisis, and that is only possible with necessary resources and support. Putting in the extra time and energy to communicate with politicians and organizations regarding the concern for our environment is the least we can do for an earth that has been sustaining us for millenniums.

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