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
Lexile

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 catastrophe.
 
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, as well as 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 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. They 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 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, 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 to 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 fluctuations. 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 and coastlines 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 happened amid an extended El Nino natural weather phenomenon. Warming Pacific waters near the equator triggered the most widespread bleaching ever documented. This third global bleaching event, as it is known, continues today 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. It has been spotted from Japan to Hawaii to Florida.
 
Around the islands of the Maldives, an idyllic Indian Ocean tourism destination, some 73 percent of surveyed reefs suffered bleaching between March and May 2016. This is 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. So says Nizam Ibrahim, 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 starting 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 and coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch. It uses satellites to monitor environmental conditions around reefs. It 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.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are scientists in a hurry?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (67)
  • brandons33446-
    3/17/2017 - 08:38 a.m.

    The scientists are in a hurry because the coral in the reefs can do a lot of things to help people. It can bring in money help with the fight cancer and other bacteria and finial thing is it help protects the coast from storm surges. so it is really important to get the reef back together.

  • wesleya-
    3/17/2017 - 08:39 a.m.

    Cause they need to find a solution to stop the reef from dying. If the reef dies then the population of people will go down bit by bit.

  • kelliek-
    3/17/2017 - 08:40 a.m.

    Since the coral reefs are dying at a rapid rate, they want to try and save them quicker so there's more to save. Without these coral reefs, we would need to find new ways to cure diseases and new homes for underwater animals.

  • shyeg-
    3/17/2017 - 08:44 a.m.

    If the scientists don't hurry, the damage will get even worse even quicker. I don't wanna see the beautiful coral reefs die and turn white and gray. This isn't fair to them or the animals in which they provide homes for. We need to do something about this, and quick, before there is nothing left.

  • emmah-ver
    3/17/2017 - 09:10 a.m.

    I think that people don't think about the coral enough, and don't pay attention to the concerns of what is happening, in society. I think ppl don't understand what coral doe son the oceans for the fish, and just think it's rock.

  • landend-ver
    3/17/2017 - 09:21 a.m.

    Coral reefs are dying quickly and there could be no more by 2050. Coral Reefs are actually very important to the world. 1 in 4 creatures in the ocean live in coral reefs. Also, we use coral reefs for diseases such as cancer, arthritis, and bacteria or viral infections. They are dying because the water temperature changed so fast, and because of the polution

  • evelynw-ver
    3/17/2017 - 10:05 a.m.

    I think if we were to focus more on the coral enough and keep the water cleaner we wouldn't have to worry about animals and plants dying as much as they are.

  • alyssaw-ver
    3/17/2017 - 10:12 a.m.

    Because they believe that there will be another big whipeout by April.

  • Desc-smi1
    3/17/2017 - 10:23 a.m.

    Scientist are in a hurry to prevent the wipe out of the coral reef because everyday more and more coral is taken or dies so if they don't hurry there wont be anything left to save.

  • maddyh-ver
    3/17/2017 - 12:05 p.m.

    Why don't we start by fixing what is causing the climate change(s) first? I'm happy people are trying to do stuff about the reefs, but other things in the world are effected by climate change too.

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