When advocating conservation and action on climate change, we tend to talk about all the familiar things that we might lose. Coffee, polar bears, sharks: all of these things are well known and loved by humans — even if it’s not up close. Still, if ocean conservation efforts fail, and climate change continues at the current accelerated pace, it’s not the loss of familiar things that will be most tragic.
A collaboration of scientists from all over the world recently allowed completion of the first official register of what lives in the oceans. Called the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), the effort led researchers to estimate that the total number of species in the seas is between 700,000 to 1 million, but only 226,000 have been formally identified. That means up to three-quarters of the world’s marine animals and plants are yet to be seen or even described by scientists.
The good news is that technological advancements could make it possible to catalog all of the remaining species by the end of the century. The bad news is that climate change, overfishing and off-shore oil drilling could make it impossible for some of these known and unknown species to last that long.
More than 40 percent of the world’s oceans and coasts are heavily affected by human activities and few, if any, areas remain untouched, according to a 2008 study from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. For the last two decades, Indo-Pacific reefs have shrunk by 1 percent each year — a loss equivalent to nearly 600 square miles (1,553 square kilometers). That makes the rate of reef loss about twice the rate of tropical rainforest loss.
Coral reefs, which are incredibly sensitive to pollution and ocean acidification caused by global warming, are not only beautiful areas of intense marine diversity. They’re also an important link in the ocean food chain. Coral reefs are critical to nearly a quarter of the world’s marine fish species, support the livelihoods of half a million people, and contribute more than $170 billion each year to world economies. Losing them would be the first domino in a series of extinctions, the last of which could be human. Is that really something we’re ready to risk in exchange for a few more decades of pollution?
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