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HomeNewsArchivesGlobal Warming an Ongoing Threat to Coral Reefs, International Report Says

Global Warming an Ongoing Threat to Coral Reefs, International Report Says

Jan. 28, 2008 — Human-induced climate change — better known to non-scientific folks as global warming — will continue to impact Caribbean corals, the World Conservation Union says in a new report.
The problem became critically apparent in 2005 when coral bleaching hit Caribbean reefs. The report, issued last week, indicates that year was the warmest ever recorded. Additionally, the report predicts that it will become a more regular event by 2030 and an annual event if the current rate of greenhouse emissions is not reversed.
"Sadly for coral reefs, it's highly likely extreme warming will happen again," said Carl Gustaf Lundin, who heads the Conservation Union's Global Marine Program, according to a news release. “When it does, the impacts will be even more severe. If we don't do something about climate change, the reefs won't be with us for much longer."
The report warns that the only way for corals on reefs around the world to survive is to manage direct pressures, such as fishing and pollution, then hope some coral species are able to adapt to a warmer environment.
Coral reefs are not only a vital part of the marine ecosystem, but they also bring in huge amounts of money, according to the Conservation Union report. Caribbean coral reefs provide an estimated $3.1 billion to $4.6 billion per year from fisheries, dive tourism and shoreline-protection services.
"This is a pivotal moment for coral reefs," say the report's authors, Clive Wilkinson and David Souter. "A dramatic reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in the next 20 years will be critical to control further warming and dangerously high CO2 levels that will reduce the robustness of corals."
The report indicates that 51.5 percent of the coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands declined because of bleaching and subsequent disease during 2005, a year that saw extraordinarily warm waters in the Caribbean region. It was also the year that a record 26 named storms developed, including the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.
There are some issues with the facts as stated in the report, however. Jeff Miller, a fisheries biologist with the National Park Service assigned to St. John, provided clarification. He said 51.5 percent of the corals died at four study sites around St. John and one at Buck Island Island Reef National Monument on St. Croix — not 51.5 percent of all the corals across the territory.
"We didn't look at every coral in the Virgin Islands," Miller said.
The five study sites represent 30 acres of the "most pristine and best reefs in the area," he said. It is of "significant concern" that more than half that coral died. Scientists, including Miller, are still studying why that happened.
Miller also clarified that most of the corals died from disease, not bleaching. But he said scientists are still investigating the connection between the disease and the bleaching.
"That's a working hypothesis," he said.
The scientists think that light intensity as well as water temperature may be a factor in coral deaths. While some people point to warm water as the cause of coral die off, Miller saw corals continue to die when the water cooled down. The corals have not recovered, and won't recover for generations.
"This is a multi-decade recovery," he said.
Searching for good news, he said the situation hasn't gotten any worse. However, he said that there's no way to tell whether the surviving corals are barely hanging on or robust.
Beyond warm water, Miller pointed to other factors that harm corals. Unpaved roads continue to threaten them because sedimentation from the roads can smother reefs, he said. And failing septic tanks, sewage-treatment systems and wastewater-treatment plants send nutrients into the water. Those nutrients cause plants like seaweed and "macro" algae to grow profusely, leaving less room for slow-growing corals.
Miller also said that fish eat the plants and algae, but without those fish, the plants and algae continue to proliferate.
"We need to look at fishing techniques and pressure," he said. Controls also need to be set on anchoring to prevent damage to the reefs, he said.
The Conservation Union report marks the beginning of the International Year of the Reef 2008, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value of coral reefs and the threats they face. It also aims to motivate people to take action to protect them.
The Switzerland-based Conservation Union brings together 83 states, 110 government agencies, more than 800 non-governmental organizations, and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries. The Conservation Union's mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature, and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.
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