Report Details Climate Crisis Impacts on Coral Reefs, Warns of 'Human Tragedy'
In a new report about how the world's coral reefs face "the combined threats of climate change, pollution, and overfishing" — endangering the future of marine biodiversity — a London-based nonprofit calls for greater global efforts to end the climate crisis and ensure the survival of these vital underwater ecosystems.
The report, entitled Marine Havens Under Threat: The impacts of the climate crisis on tropical coral reefs and the communities that rely on them, was published Wednesday by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
EJF warns that because of human activities that heat and pollute the planet, coral reefs "are under imminent risk of destruction," pointing to a recent estimate from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that global warming of 2°C could kill 99 percent of all corals.
#coralreefs are incredibly biodiverse, but they also provide a huge range of benefits, from medicines to protection… https://t.co/E2Z19ZKeEh— Environmental Justice Foundation (@Environmental Justice Foundation)1579713309.0
The ocean, which covers more than 70 percent of the planet, "has taken up between 20–30% of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions since the 1980s causing further ocean acidification," according to an IPCC special report from last year. The lead author of a study published last week said that "the amount of heat we have put in the world's oceans in the past 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions."
Some scientists refer to three key climate-related pressures on the marine environment — warming, acidification, and oxygen loss — as the "deadly trio." Experts also warn that human-caused global heating leads to sea level rise and certain extreme weather events becoming more frequent and intense.
"As the global temperature rises, reefs will be put at risk from warming oceans, higher frequency cyclones, increased precipitation, sea level rise, rising acidification, and changing ocean circulation," the EJF report says. "These factors alter the delicate balance of conditions necessary for tropical coral reefs to function, causing bleaching and destruction of reefs. In many cases, this damage is irreversible."
Some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth rely on coral reefs. Find out about their vital role in a new… https://t.co/OcF99JBEJU— Environmental Justice Foundation (@Environmental Justice Foundation)1579706403.0
Marine heatwaves, which experts warn will become more common as humans continue to heat the planet, have led to major coral bleaching events around the world in recent years. A study from 2018 concluded that the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, the world's largest coral system, was "forever damaged" following back-to-back bleaching events that collectively killed half of the corals.
Bleaching refers to when stressors such as warm water and pollution lead coral to expel algae, its main food source, and turn white. Bleached coral faces a greater risk of disease and death but can recover if surrounding conditions improve. Last year, a study about severe marine heatwaves heightened alarm about the future; researchers found cases where "the water temperatures are so warm that the coral animal doesn't bleach—in terms of a loss of its symbiosis—the animal dies and its underlying skeleton is all that remains."
EJF, in its new report and an accompanying video, highlighted the consequences of coral bleaching and death events for both marine wildlife and humans.
Coral Reefs in Crisis
"Tropical coral reefs support an estimated quarter of all marine species: hundreds of thousands of animal and plant species, who rely on the reef for food, shelter, and a safe place to live and reproduce," the report says. "These complex ecosystems include hard and soft corals, sponges, crustaceans, molluscs, fish, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, and much more—including 'foundation' and 'keystone' species such as corals and sea turtles."
The report also spotlights a U.N. estimate that at least 275 million people rely on healthy coral reefs as an "essential source of food, employment, income, and storm protection for coastal communities."
In terms of the economic value of coral reefs, EJF puts tourism and recreation at $9.6 billion, coastal protection at $9 billion, fisheries at $5.7 billion, and wildlife at $5.5 billion. Directly below the economic figures, the report features "a note of caution: Valuing biodiversity in this way is of course subjective, how do we put a value on a species' intrinsic right to exist?"
#Coralreefs are more than just beautiful. They are a source of income, protein, recreation and safety from storms f… https://t.co/TmKaBvTQy3— Environmental Justice Foundation (@Environmental Justice Foundation)1579677301.0
To combat the triple threat that coral reefs are facing, EJF puts forth recommendations to end the climate crisis: implement the Paris agreement and fully transition all industrial economies to zero carbon by 2030, create a European Union inter-agency taskforce "to drive a more effective, integrated" global response, and establish a U.N. special rapporteur on human rights, economic well-being, and climate change.
EJF presents another set of specific recommendations to ensure that remaining corals "survive the climate change that is irreversible," calling for an end to illegal and unsustainable fishing as well as pollution that harms coral, including agricultural runoff, sewage, and plastic. The group also calls for expanding marine protected areas to cover at least 30% of the ocean, and assuring that such zones have "clear restrictions and effective conservation aims."
"In all deliberations and future negotiations," the report adds, "all stakeholders must be included, with special reference to local communities."
Acknowledging that coral reefs "are not only a vital source of food and income for millions of people" but also "home to a vast diversity of irreplaceable wildlife," EJF executive director Steve Trent warned Wednesday that "failure to act now to protect them will cause environmental ruin and with it a human tragedy."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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