Human Indifference will Doom Coral Reefs

Charlotte Mandy, Editor

The term ‘climate change’ gets passed around a lot of late, a noisy concept that most would either like to ignore, emblazon their Twitter or car bumper with, or discredit as complete fiction. Whichever of these the discussion of climate change tends towards, it often focuses on glaciers and icebergs, some of the most dramatic players on this warming global stage. Equally of interest, however, is another watery symptom of rapid changes on our planet: the condition of coral reefs.

The basis of much of the rhetoric surrounding the climate change discourse is whether humans are having significant enough of an impact to produce immediately dangerous results. Whatever your take on the matter, there are no scientific rebuttals for the fact that carbon dioxide emissions are gradually lowering the pH of, or acidifying, planet Earth’s oceans. This increase in carbon dioxide is caused by deforestation and the burning of fossil fuel, and is accelerating again after a plateau period ( Each year, the oceans absorb about a third of human activities’ carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That is twenty-two million tons absorbed a day, according to National Geographic.

As the gas dissolves, it produces carbonic acid. And as emissions increase, so too will the acid’s prevalence.

Where are coral reefs in all this? The reefs, located in specified climates around the world, use something called calcium carbonate to grow and repair themselves in the process of calcification. Minerals like calcium carbonate cannot exist in an overly acidic ocean; in short, the only way reefs can spread, fight erosion, or recover from environmental disturbances is calcification outpacing acidification, something that will not occur as the concentration of the acid rises.

Undersaturation of carbonates and other life-giving minerals also threatens to wipe out organisms with shells, as well as the estimated one million species that depend on every reef. For example, a study was done on tiny creatures known as pteropods, or floating sea snails. When exposed to the predicted ocean acidity of the year 2100, they dissolved after only forty-five days. If that is not concerning, it is important to note that pteropods feed fish, which feed seals, birds, dolphins, penguins, and innumerable others, including our own species.

A single organism, let alone a single reef, is a nexus for food chains that span the planet, and we simply cannot afford to lose them.

Coral reefs are the forests of our oceans, but as the forests of our land fair no better, the future of their preservation seems bleak. The work of thousands of scientists to educate the public about this has often been tarred by the unscrupulous methods of a few alarmists, and the longer humankind debates about it, the harder it will be to reverse or address the acidification of the ocean. Research in this field is still recent and must hurry to catch up with the times, sparking the formation of new organizations and programs (like BIOACID, Biological Impact of Ocean Acidification).

But there are, perhaps, two hopes. Within the next few decades, the coral reef tourism industry, worth billions of dollars, will start to feel the noose of an unfriendly climate around its neck and take steps to cooperate with scientists and popularize reef preservation and the reduction of carbon emissions. Or, if that fails, consider the students of today’s education system, brought up and familiarized with the idea of how much of an environmental impact our species can have. They are accustomed to dismal figures and statistics.

So long as they do not become desensitized, they may grow up to become the researchers that continue the crusade to save the last of the reefs, as well as the voters, politicians, and legislators that begin the long journey towards a civilization in relative harmony with the only planet we have.


Sources and further acidification content: