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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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
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Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.