Scientists race to prevent wipeout of world's coral reefs This May 2016 photo provided by the Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey shows a snorkeler surveying the coral bleaching in the Maldives. Coral reefs, unique underwater ecosystems that sustain a quarter of the world's marine species and half a billion people, are dying on an unprecedented scale. Scientists are racing to prevent a complete wipeout within decades. (The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey via AP)
Scientists race to prevent wipeout of world's coral reefs

Assign to Google Classroom

There were startling colors on South Ari Atoll just a year ago. They pointed to a dazzling array of life beneath the waves. Now this Maldivian reef is dead.
What happened? It was killed by the stress of rising ocean temperatures. What's left is a haunting expanse of gray. It's a scene repeated in reefs across the globe. It has fast become a full-blown ecological disaster.
The Maldives are a group of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean. 
The world has lost roughly half its coral reefs in the last 30 years. Scientists are now scrambling to ensure that at least a fraction of these unique ecosystems survives. The health of the planet depends on it. Coral reefs support a quarter of all marine species. They also support half a billion people around the world.
"This isn't something that's going to happen 100 years from now. We're losing them right now," said marine biologist Julia Baum. She works at Canada's University of Victoria. "We're losing them really quickly, much more quickly than I think any of us ever could have imagined."
Even if the world could halt global warming now, scientists still expect that more than 90 percent of corals will die. This could happen by 2050. Without drastic intervention, we risk losing them all.
"To lose coral reefs is to fundamentally undermine the health of a very large proportion of the human race," said Ruth Gates. She is director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Coral reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe. They often are described as underwater rainforests. These populate a tiny fraction of the ocean. But they provide habitats for one in four marine species. Reefs also form crucial barriers. They protect coastlines from the full force of storms.
The reefs provide billions of dollars in revenue. It comes from tourism, fishing and other commerce. The reefs are used in medical research for cures to diseases. These include cancer, arthritis and bacterial or viral infections.
"Whether you're living in North America or Europe or Australia, you should be concerned," said biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. He is director of the Global Change Institute. It is at Australia's University of Queensland. "This is not just some distant dive destination, a holiday destination. This is the fabric of the ecosystem that supports us."
That fabric is being torn apart.
Corals are invertebrates. They live mostly in tropical waters. They secrete calcium carbonate. This builds build protective skeletons. These grow and take on impressive colors. It is thanks to a symbiotic relationship with algae that live in their tissues and provide them with energy.
But corals are sensitive to temperature changes. Now they are suffering from rising ocean temperatures and acidification. In addition, they suffer from overfishing, pollution, coastal development and agricultural runoff.
A temperature change of just 1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit can force coral to expel the algae. It leaves their white skeletons visible. The process is known as "bleaching."
Bleached coral can recover if the water cools. But if high temperatures persist for months, the coral will die. Eventually the reef will degrade. That can leave fish without habitats. Coastlines will be less protected from storm surges.
The first global bleaching event occurred in 1998. Sixteen percent of corals died. The problem spiraled dramatically in 2015-2016. It came amid an extended El Nino natural weather phenomenon. This warmed Pacific waters near the equator. It triggered the most widespread bleaching ever documented. This third global bleaching event continues today. And it has happened even after El Nino ended.
Headlines have focused on damage to Australia's famed Great Barrier Reef. But other reefs have fared just as badly or worse across the world. It is happening from Japan to Hawaii to Florida.
The Maldives is an idyllic Indian Ocean tourism destination. Around these islands some 73 percent of surveyed reefs suffered bleaching between March and May 2016. The statistics are according to the country's Marine Research Center.
"This bleaching episode seems to have impacted the entire Maldives. But the severity of bleaching varies" between reefs, according to local conditions. This is according to Nizam Ibrahim. Ibrahim is the center's senior research officer.
Worst hit have been areas in the central Pacific. That is where the University of Victoria's Baum has been conducting research on Kiritimati, or Christmas Island. It is in the Republic of Kiribati. Warmer water temperatures lasted there for 10 months in 2015-2016. It killed a staggering 90 percent of the reef.
Baum had never seen anything like it.
To make matters worse, scientists are predicting another wave of elevated ocean temperatures. It could start in April.
"The models indicate that we will see the return of bleaching in the South Pacific soon, along with a possibility of bleaching in both the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean," said Mark Eakin. He is coral reef specialist. Eakin is coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch. It uses satellites to monitor environmental conditions around reefs. The condition may not be as bad as last year. But it could further stress "reefs that are still hurting from the last two years."
The speed of the destruction is what alarms scientists and conservationists. Damaged coral might not have time to recover before it is hit again by warmer temperatures.

Filed Under:  
Assigned 88 times
Why are scientists in a hurry?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • kayceey-smi
    3/20/2017 - 09:04 a.m.

    Scientists are in a hurry because it is a problem happening right now and if they push it off we could loose our coral reefs.These reefs are important because it not only a nice vacation but it is part of our ecosystem.

  • Kyle-E2
    3/20/2017 - 10:52 a.m.

    So this reef in Ari Atoll is now dead.How did this happen?Well it was killed by the stress of rising ocean temperatures.scientists are on the problem looking for a cure to solve this terrible problem

    MY OPINION:My opinion on this is that if this keeps happening this could wipe out all of the color reefs in the world.So this is really bad and it is could that scientist are trying to help all they can to solve this terrible problem.

  • wcailin-dav
    3/20/2017 - 05:29 p.m.

    I didn't know that the reefs were suffering this greatly. I also didn't know that this I such a big problem for scientists and other marine life experts. I appreciate this article because it is letting young readers see whats going wrong in the world. I really like this article for all the information it provides for people who aren't aware of these types of problems.

  • acacian-bur
    3/27/2017 - 11:18 a.m.

    The reef is dying not just one or two but all of them. The water temperature is rising so that would be the reason why the scientists are in a hurry.

  • asherbr
    4/11/2017 - 08:47 a.m.

    I think scientist are in a hurry because teamputures are dropping and coral reefs are dying coral reefs give us oxygen

    • ilyssatr
      4/20/2017 - 12:57 p.m.

      I agree with you

  • jordintr
    4/11/2017 - 08:52 a.m.

    I think that the scientists are in a hurry because the coral is dying.They think it will happen this month APRIL! That kind of freaks me out because I live in Tennessee also it's problematic! Because they said that it would spread to North Amarcia!

  • juliewr
    4/11/2017 - 08:52 a.m.

    Scientists are in hurry because coral reefs are dying .The reason coral reefs dying is because of global warming. It is not a good thing that coral reefs are dying. Global warming is happening all over the world from Hawaii to Florida. Global warming has causedes a lot of animals to lose their habitats and now we're losing the coral reefs and it is not a good thing.

  • allysacr
    4/11/2017 - 08:53 a.m.

    Scientists are in a hurry to save the coral reef because they can die of a 1.8 degree's of a water temperature change.And are also dying of global warming.This is a problem because a lot of wild life depend on the coral reef.

  • camillehr
    4/11/2017 - 08:56 a.m.

    I think scientists are in a hurry because the text said they could die in 2050.But I think 2050 is a long way away.Their right I guess.I didn't know about global warming and the reefs.Just a little bit of temperature changes and it's almost dead.That's what I think scientists are in a hurry because of.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment