Coral reefs: stunning, diverse, found worldwide, and incredibly fragile, despite the fact that they look like they’re made from stone. These delicate, beautiful structures are microcosms, communities filled with organisms living in a mutually beneficial world that provides food, shelter and protection from harsh weather. Sadly, 25% of coral reefs are already hopelessly damaged, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and many others face serious threats.
Combating damage to coral reefs requires understanding the multifaceted nature of the threats against their survival, and determining the best way to address these environmental issues before it’s too late. The loss of coral reefs would be tragic not just because we’d miss something beautiful in the world, but because they also play an important environmental role.
1. Ocean Acidification
Associated with climate change, ocean acidification occurs as atmospheric CO2 rises and the ocean absorbs it. The oceans have been burdened with a huge percentage of the rapidly-rising CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, and they aren’t equipped to handle it. Historically, the ocean’s pH was relatively stable. Today, it’s dropping due to reactions between seawater and CO2, and corals are missing out on valuable carbonate ions they need to form. Not only that, but as the level of dissolved CO2 in the ocean rises, it appears to be directly damaging coral skeletons, causing them to break and crumble.
2. Coral Bleaching
Thanks to climate change, the ocean is getting warmer. Corals, along with many other organisms in the sea, are extremely sensitive to small temperature changes. In their case, they can react to temperature increases by expelling their critical symbiotic algae, known as zooxanthellae. How critical? They provide up to 80% of the energy needed by the coral to survive, so when they leave, the coral is at risk of dying off — and it acquires a distinctive pale color, explaining the term “bleaching.”
Coral, like the rest of us, doesn’t take kindly to toxins in its environment, and when exposed to chemical and industrial pollution, it can die. Moreover, corals are at risk of what is known as “nutrient pollution,” where the ocean becomes rich in nutrients as a result of fertilizer release, animal waste and related materials. It turns out there is such a thing as too much of a good thing — algae swarm in and bloom in response to the sudden food source, and they choke out the coral population. Better pollution controls and conservation are critical to prevent this issue.
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