Unless we act now to save coral reefs we might be dooming ourselves

Unless we act now to save coral reefs we might be dooming ourselves

Unless we act now to save coral reefs we might be dooming ourselves
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Another week gone by and yet another highly alarming news story has emerged about the state of the global environment and the dramatic effect climate change is having on our planet and its rapidly diminishing biodiversity.

Researchers in Hawaii warned that half of the world’s coral reef ecosystems could be permanently damaged by 2035 if climate change continues at its current pace.

A University of Hawaii study found that global warming, and its numerous direct and indirect effects, could cause corals to die, which would threaten other marine life that depends, directly or indirectly, on them for survival.

The report is hardly the first warning about the dire situation affecting most of the coral reefs around the world. Global warming means that not only are sea levels rising but waters around the world, including at the two poles, are becoming warmer for more time each year.

Warmer waters, combined with prolonged exposure to sunlight, have disastrous effects on corals, which become bleached and can eventually die. Other factors that are damaging corals worldwide include ocean acidification, tropical storms, changes in land use and the rising human population.

Healthy corals are thriving hot spots of biodiversity that support thousands, if not millions, of species of plant and marine life. When a coral is damaged or dies, therefore, an entire ecosystem is weakened or destroyed.

This is extremely bad news for the world because global biodiversity is already shrinking or disappearing as a result of climate change and human interference; for example, hunting, fishing, encroachment, pollution or a combination of such activities.

One of the most alarming aspects of recent findings is that by the year 2055, as much as 99 percent — in other words, almost all — of the world’s corals could be damaged by at least one of these human factors, adding to the stress on a shrinking amount of coral.

Besides providing ideal ecosystems to sustain marine biodiversity, corals are also key to many other marine functions, all of which play an important role in the survival of the planet and go a long way toward helping to limit damage from extreme weather conditions.

For example, corals act as natural barriers that prevent large waves from hitting coasts directly and protect land masses from rapid erosion. As seawater levels rise and extreme weather events occur more frequently on land and at sea, the importance of the role corals play has only increased dramatically.

There is little doubt that the perilous situation corals are in is a direct consequence of uncontrolled human greed and our devil-may-care attitude toward protecting the planet, especially those forms of life that are usually invisible to human eyes.

And so, despite many warnings over the past four decades, coral reefs worldwide have been damaged to the point where at least some of them, if not most, are beyond any hope of repair or revival.

It is not yet too late to save the corals but we need to act now, not wait any longer until it is too late.

Ranvir Nayar

This is mainly because for many decades, centuries even, humans have been treating the oceans like garbage dumps or landfill sites. Estimates suggest that at least 13 million tons of plastic waste is now ending up in the world’s oceans each year, adding to the more than 150 million tons that is already suffocating all forms of marine life.

On top of that, oceans also absorb a significant amount of the carbon dioxide emitted each year, about 8 gigatons. They also have to handle millions of tons of oil, grease, untreated municipal waste and other forms of waste.

All of these things damage corals in many ways, for example by making sea water more acidic; some estimates suggest that by end of this century, the oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than current levels.

Higher acidity leads to the dissolution of the calcium carbonate that the corals need to survive, not only bleaching them and effectively killing most of them but weakening others, leading to their eventual collapse.

If corals are damaged to the extent researchers predict it will have a number of ripple effects on the global food chain and damage biodiversity even further.

As corals disappear, marine life is likely to be heavily affected. Given that fisheries provide an important source of nutrition for humans, any environmental damage that affects fish populations will come back to haunt humans much sooner than many believe possible.

The collapse of corals will harm the world in many other ways, too. For example, it will remove the last barriers to seawater incursion on land and leave coastal communities more vulnerable to more-severe damage from extreme weather events such as cyclones or hurricanes, which are already becoming much more common and intense.

There are many more examples of the problems we will face if the corals die, and the results are all the same. Corals are crucial to the survival of the planet and the human race. The sooner the world realizes this and takes urgent steps to prevent further damage, while also helping to repair and revive damaged reefs, the better it will be for humanity and all other forms of life on Earth.

And unless it has been damaged beyond repair, restoring the health of coral is actually not too difficult, as various studies have shown.

For instance, to curb the damage caused by mass tourism, in 2019 Thai authorities closed Maya Bay, near Krabi, to tourists because only 8 percent of its corals remained alive. Three years later, the reefs have recovered remarkably, prompting authorities to allow a heavily restricted number of visitors to visit the bay — which featured in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach” — compared with the previous flood of 4,000 every day.

There are many other similar case studies because nature is nothing if not resilient. But it cannot heal on its own. Humans need to play their part in the recovery effort with full energy, enthusiasm and dedication.

It is not yet too late to save the corals but we need to act now, not wait any longer until it is too late.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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