Coral reefs are a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the health of our planet. As land dwellers, we can’t see or feel the effects of climate change and other detrimental forces at work in the ocean, but coral reefs can. The strange changes occurring in the world’s most important reef systems show us that something is terribly wrong.
1. The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef has already experienced a 50 percent decline in coral cover over the last 27 years, in large part due to nutrient runoff from the coasts. But recently, an even more outrageous threat has surfaced. According to Scientific American, there are six coal export-related development or expansion proposals under assessment by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It seems that Australia’s coal industry wants to build a series of ports adjacent to the reef, to expedite the exportation of their toxic product. To do so would mean “dredging and dumping of 113 million cubic meters of seabed for ports and up to 10,000 coal ships crossing the reef every year” — an act that would be fatal to the Reef.
2. Southeast Asian Coral Reefs
The ocean, particularly the fish and other seafood it has to offer, has always been very important to Southeast Asian culture. Unfortunately, sustainable fishing has only recently become part of the discussion, an oversight that has put the region’s nearly 100,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, almost 34 percent of the world total, in grave danger. “Human activities now threaten an estimated 88 percent of Southeast Asia’s coral reefs, jeopardizing their biological and economic value to society. For 50 percent of these reefs, the level of threat is ‘high’ or ‘very high.’ Only 12 percent of reefs are at low risk,” explains the World Resources Institute (WRI).
2. Sri Lankan Coral Reefs
Overfishing isn’t the only human activity that has a negative effect on coral reefs. In the Indian Ocean, many reefs have been strip-mined for use as a cheap building material. “The coral is then processed and used in construction materials, most frequently building blocks and a lime plaster very popular with native builders,” explains this TED Case Study.
3. Caribbean Coral Reefs
Nearly two-thirds of coral reefs in the Caribbean are threatened by human activities, such as coastal development, sediment and pollution, marine based threats and overfishing. As a popular tourist destination, the Caribbean reefs are also greatly threatened by waste from cruise ships, tankers and yachts that is discharged directly into the water. “In addition, coral bleaching episodes-the most direct evidence of stress from global climate change on Caribbean marine biodiversity-are on the rise,” reports WRI.
4. Kingman Reef
Located about 1,000 miles southwest of Honolulu, Kingman Reef is an uninhabited, barren, coral atoll with a deep lagoon. “It became a U.S. naval reservation in 1934. Pan American Airways used the lagoon just before World War II as a station for seaplanes flying between Hawaii and Samoa,” reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A 2008 study of the Kingman Reef and surrounding islands/atolls found many threats, including the residual impacts of guano mining, WWII-era military construction, coral bleaching and invasive species.
5. Florida’s Coral Reefs
“Monitoring data from 105 stations in the Florida Keys has revealed a 44 percent decline in coral cover from 1996-2005,” reports the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. In addition to the devastating effects of fishing and marine tourism, Florida’s reefs suffer the consequences of that state’s unsustainable population growth. Large coastal infrastructure projects, such as the installation of pipes, cables and wastewater outfalls for public utilities, have contributed to shoreline erosion and damaged coral habitat through water pollution. “Beach nourishment projects, in which large volumes of sand are re-located from offshore to onshore, can cause severe impacts to reefs. Coral reef organisms may be smothered by sediments and reduced water clarity deprives corals of the light they require for photosynthesis by their symbiotic algae,” explains the Florida DEP.
Now all of this is very sad from an environmentalist’s point of view, but the loss of something pretty and special isn’t the only cost we’ll pay for destroying the coral reefs. Scroll through the infographic below to see what we’ll really lose if we lose the coral reefs.
Image via Thinkstock