The Incredible Ways Scientists Are Rebuilding Our Coral Reefs
This year’s extreme storms have further damaged coral reefs—an ecosystem that was in bad shape to begin with. Corals thrive in warm, tropical waters, and even slight shifts in temperature and acidity can throw them off. Though warming oceans have threatened their livelihood for years, 2016 and early 2017 proved an especially warm period, which led to the worst coral bleaching event in recent history. Coral bleaching occurs when the beneficial bacteria that feed corals begin to die off, leaving reefs starving and close to death. Photos of reefs painted white—eerie wastelands void of color and life—have become a rallying cry to the scientific community to band together and buy our reefs more time.
Coaxing coral back to life.
Warmer temperatures, along with overfishing, runoff, and dredging, have now killed off nearly 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs. Scientists are warning that reefs could be a thing of the past as soon as 2050.
Reefs are good for a lot more than just a beautiful photograph, and this mass extinction would be felt around the world. Reef tourism has historically brought billions of dollars a year to economies like Australia and Hawaii, and low-lying lands depend on reefs as natural barriers from storm surges. An estimated 500 million to 1 billion people rely on nearby reefs for food, and certain Pacific islands get 70 percent of their protein from them. Once these food sources run dry, the island’s inhabitants are forced to move inland, becoming what’s known as “ecological refugees.”
The first step in nursing these important ecosystems back to health is decreasing the rate of climate change. “There’s no scientific doubt that warming oceans are driving these dramatic increases in bleaching events,” says Joe Pollock, the coral strategy director for The Nature Conservancy, a green nonprofit. “Slowing the rate of climate change is the single most important thing we can do to not only protect corals but keep systems alive around the world.” However, this won’t happen overnight, and we need to find a way to nurse coral back to health in the meantime.