Some say it’s like winter underwater, so what exactly is going on?
“Wow, the corals look as if they’re covered in snow, pretty cool, kinda like winter underwater”, said the newbie as the group surfaced after a dive. But unbeknownst to them, they have just witnessed the probable death of the surrounding coral reef. Some may say it’s a beautiful death, but its long term effects are truly devastating.
We’ve heard about coral bleaching and there are a ton of articles around the web dedicated to this delicate topic – it’s a worldwide crisis. Not convinced? Check out the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s heat map below gasp*!!
First off, why is the coral reef important?
The coral reef is the ocean’s rainforest. Nuff said. Although it represents less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean floor, the reefs supports approximately 25% of all marine species! Not only that, coral reefs also protects our shorelines (by dissipating wave and storm energy, just like the mangroves forests), supports the local economy (think fishing and tourism), and medical science – chemical compounds in certain species have yielded cancer treatments, painkiller, antibacterial properties… and to think that only a micro fraction of the reefs have been analysed. Yeah… let that sink in for a moment.
So how do corals get bleached – in a nutshell
The common culprit, global warming (yes, it’s real) results in sustained high sea temperatures, which stresses the corals to the point where they expel their bright colored algae that live within its tissues. This process is named bleaching as it removes the pigment and exposes the white calcium skeleton of the reef.
Other stressors for the coral reef includes overfishing, coastal pollution, changing storm patterns, increased greenhouse gases from human activities – which results in climate change and ocean acidification (a reduction in ocean’s PH levels as a result of increased carbon dioxide. Just so you know… the ocean is a massive sink that absorbs carbon dioxide).
Additional little known stressors include sunscreen and the unaware or uninformed tourist. Chemicals in most regular sunscreen are toxic, especially those that contain oxybenzone. According to some research, toxicity occurs at a concentration the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. And for the uninformed tourist, the fragile coral reefs get stressed when touch… let alone being stepped on or being raped of their home.
Check out this link to watch coral bleaching happen before your eyes!
There’s still hope!
Although bleached, it doesn’t mean that the corals are completely dead (yet). Rather, the corals are left very vulnerable (without the algae) and are more susceptible to disease. Nonetheless, the corals still have a lifeline if environmental conditions become favourable with a long road to recovery ahead.
Preserving the reefs starts with you, and here’s how you can help
- Shrink your carbon footprint to reduce greenhouse gases (reduce, reuse, recycle; purchase energy efficient appliances; print less; go green
- Reduce pollution – do not dump household chemicals into the sewer (remember all these may ultimately lead back to the ocean).
- Choose sustainable seafood, do not encourage overfishing activities.
- If space permits, grow more plants or plant a tree and support forest conservation. Trees stores carbon and reduce agricultural run-offs, which again may ultimately end up in the ocean.
- Volunteer for beach and/or reef clean ups.
- If you must, use “reef safe” sunscreen, or one which do not contain those nasty oxybenzone.
- Learn about good reef etiquette, practice it, and preach about it to increase awareness.
So not all hope is lost… we can still preserve our remaining reefs if we act now – It honestly isn’t that hard isn’t it? Protecting the reef could help maintain it for the marine life it supports and for sustaining the interests for the many generations to come.