As residents of Florida continue to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Irma, scientists analyzing the hurricane’s stronger-than-usual storm surges are pointing the finger at the weakened state of coral barriers along the Florida coast. Had there been a more robust coral reef structure in the Caribbean and along the Florida Reef Tract, the severity of Irma’s coastal flooding and wave run-up could have been greatly diminished. According to one 2014 analysis conducted by researchers from Stanford, the US Geological Survey, and the University of Bologna, coral reefs can take 97% of the energy out of incoming waves.
None of this is surprising. It’s common knowledge that reefs – which dissipate wave energy, act as surge breakwaters and reduce the effects of seaside erosion – have an integral role in protecting and sustaining coastal communities. This begs an important question: given the stakes, why have the state of Florida and the federal government allowed such a vital reef to deteriorate so badly?
In its defense, the US is hardly the only country mismanaging this issue. Coral degradation is one of the most pervasive impacts of pollution and climate change. Keystone organisms in the aquatic biosphere, many coral polyp species are exceptionally vulnerable to changes in water temperature. Environmental stress causes them to bleach and, eventually, die. Coral reefs will continue to perish as rising temperatures and sea levels, acidification, and extreme weather events become more pronounced.
What do we stand to lose?
It’s high time the international community approach the worldwide degradation of coral reefs as a pressing climate issue, because the costs we pay for losing them are far more severe than they appear at first glance. In terms of global tourism, reefs create millions of jobs and bring in billions of dollars in revenue, often serving as the lifeblood of coastal towns and cities. The Great Barrier Reef is worth an estimated AU$29 billion (US$23 billion) to Australia and supports 64,000 jobs. From an ecological perspective, the value of coral reefs is even more immeasurable. Coral reefs help fixate greenhouse gases, provide a habitat for enormous populations of marine organisms and sustain staggering levels of biodiversity.
And then there is, of course, the fact that coral reefs are indispensable to the food security of millions of people. According to numbers presented by the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), 393 million people in its six member countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste) depend on coral reefs and reef-caught-seafood for their livelihoods.
Unfortunately, the fate of the reefs is not a question that offers time to search for answers. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage property and the largest coral reef system on Earth, has already been called “dead“ by some environmentalists. As much of 95% of the reef is already experiencing bleaching.
As with the Paris climate agreement in 2015, the island nations at most immediate risk are the most proactive in trying to reverse the tide. The Seychelles, off the coast of East Africa, saw 90 percent of the coral along its archipelago damaged by bleaching from El Niño in 1998. Nearly 20 years later, the government sponsors extensive coral conservation programs and local conservationists use coral grown in protected nurseries to replace and rehabilitate bleached areas of the archipelago reef. Unfortunately, forces out of the islanders’ control make the struggle to protect what’s left of the reefs an uphill battle. The most recent El Niño, which hit last year, left as little as 5% of the islands’ original coral coverage intact.
The Seychelles aren’t alone in trying to intervene on the corals’ behalf. In Florida, for instance, the Coral Restoration Foundation raises and outplants “reef-ready” coral all along the Florida Reef Tract. Building off their example in the South Grenadines, teams from CLEAR (Centre for Livelihoods, Ecosystems, Energy, Adaptation and Resilience) Caribbean are working alongside the Philip Stephenson Foundation to meet with local fishing communities, monitor reef health and explain the long-term downsides of overfishing in the vulnerable coral reef systems around the eco-resort island of Petit St Vincent.
Like in the Seychelles, coral conservation efforts around the island are leveraging a nursery to grow and transfer predominant local species back into a restoration zone. The local reefs, which function through tight symbiosis and generate practically no waste, have apparently inspired the modus operandi of the resort itself.
Scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences are taking an even more hands-on approach, experimenting with coral DNA in an attempt to create more resilient and adaptable species of coral. The two main scientists on Australian program, Ruth Gates and Madeleine van Oppen, first realized the merits of their plan when they noticed that some coral species showed more robust temperature acclimatization abilities than others. Their plan proposal, named “assisted evolution,” is being eyed with increasing interest as rising sea temperatures continue to threaten coral reef systems around the world.
Broadening the effort
These initiatives can help stabilize local reefs, but they still need to be underpinned by a broader strategy that seeks to limit anthropogenic practices that destroy coral. UNESCO is taking a more proactive approach to safeguarding those reefs classified as World Heritage sites, expressing concern regarding the threat of climate change-induced coral bleaching. However, the organization has admitted that the global impacts of climate change are quickly outpacing its ability to preserve the World Heritage sites in its charge, let alone do anything for the local reef systems that fall outside its remit.
Instead, those countries most affected by coral reef damage (and the conservationists who assist them) should push for a broader, UN-wide approach – ideally within the framework of the Paris agreement – to focus specifically on addressing and mitigating the impacts of climate change on the reefs. After all, even the Paris agreement’s 1.5C target for global warming wouldn’t be an ideal scenario – but it is the only outlook that offers concrete hope for reef survival.