coral bleaching

Coral Bleaching May Lead to End of Oceans As We Know Them

Jane Marsh - August 20, 2018

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The only glimpse you’ve gotten of a coral reef might have occurred when you watched an Animal Planet documentary. If you’re lucky, you might have gone on a diving trip that gave you a much closer look.

Even if you don’t know a lot about marine biology, coral reefs are undoubtedly awe-inspiring. However, they serve much more significant purposes than looking pretty. Due to a phenomenon called coral bleaching, coral reefs around the world could be short-lived.

Key Benefits of Coral Reefs

More than a million aquatic species live in the world’s coral reefs. Disruption of the reefs directly affects ocean life and its overall health. Plus, coral reefs substantially contribute to economies around the world, both through job creation for people who work around them and by boosting tourism numbers. Those advantages are just the start.

What’s Coral Bleaching?

Coral bleaching significantly threatens the world’s coral reefs, but, what exactly is that?

First, you need to know that a tiny type of algae called zooxanthellae lives inside coral reefs. The algae give coral reefs their color and are the primary food source. However, problems like temperature fluctuations and pollution can cause the reefs to become stressed and expel the algae.

If that happens, the coral reefs appear pale or nearly white. At that point, the reefs could recover if they’re resilient enough but are at an elevated risk of disease or death.

Damage Is Happening Rapidly

Many people find it difficult to recognize the urgency of some of our most pressing environmental issues. Often, they think they won’t notice significant changes in their lifetimes. However, scientists warn even if it were possible to halt all climate change now, we’d still lose 90 percent of coral reefs by 2050.Climate change is a factor that triggers coral bleaching. Even a water temperature rise of fewer than two degrees Fahrenheit can cause it.

On a more positive note, data about climate and the world’s oceans indicates a global coral bleaching event that harmed reefs in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans may finally be ending.

A 2017 analysis of satellite information and models suggested a three-year period of higher-than-usual ocean temperatures was coming to a close. As such, the 70 percent of coral reefs around the world that experienced prolonged exposure to the temperatures that cause coral bleaching would get relief.

Also, not all the reefs exposed to those warm-water conditions got bleached. Scientists are investigating further in an attempt to figure out what made those reefs survive while others suffered.

Extended Periods of Danger Hinder Recovery

One of the problems of coral bleaching events is that, like the one mentioned above, they often last a while. A 2016 instance with the Great Barrier Reef killed 29 percent of it. Then, there was a 2017 event that hit the Great Barrier Reef once again.

Scientists are also concerned because they say there isn’t enough time between the time when a coral bleaching event eases and another one starts. Moreover, they mention that once a particular reef gets bleached five or six times, it’s essentially dead.

The first global coral bleaching event happened relatively recently — in 1998. In the 1980s, bleaching on a smaller scale was rare and only occurred every 25 to 30 years. Now, massive coral bleaching happens about every six years. That’s too fast for the delicate and valuable ecosystems to recover.

How Can We Respond?

It’s easy to feel disheartened by reading about the destruction of the world’s reefs that have already happened, combined with researchers’ doomed predictions of what’s to come. Fortunately, though, we can fight back against what’s happening and work hard to preserve the world’s precious coral reefs.

Contact your state’s legislators and let them know reef protection and restoration are of great importance to you. Also, bring up the issue with your friends, both on social media and in person.

Be Careful What You Buy and Where You Do Business

Making changes to the things you do and consume also stimulates positive change that helps the reefs heal. Tens of thousands of tons of sunscreens make their way into our oceans and could negatively impact coral reefs.

Certain brands are particularly harmful — especially if they contain oxybenzone. It causes coral bleaching to happen at an uncommon temperature — 78 degrees Fahrenheit — which could mean instances occur for reasons other than global warming.

When shopping for sunscreen, scrutinize the ingredient list. Better yet, look for sunscreens advertised as reef safe.

What if you’re lucky enough to need that sunscreen during a trip that lets you get up close to coral reefs? Always be respectful of them by looking and not touching. As you research the various diving companies in your destination, aim to support those that mention reef conservation in their mission statements or company practices

Is there extra money in your budget? Instead of using it for something that only benefits you — such as a specialty coffee or a movie ticket — consider making an ongoing donation to an organization actively working to preserve our reefs. Reef Recovery Initiative, The Great Barrier Reef Foundation and Coral Reef Alliance are just a few possibilities.

Our Beautiful and Essential Reefs Should Not Be Mere Memories

Wouldn’t it be terrible if it’s only possible for future generations to experience reefs through past footage or the recollections of their elders because the real things are few and far between? The world’s reefs need our help to recover from coral bleaching. You can start giving it now by raising awareness and getting others on board with this all-important cause.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.