Corals reefs are one of the most underestimated ecosystems on the planet. Aside from being one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the earth, they provide protection for the coastline from heavy storms and shelter over a quarter of all marine life (marhaver 1:00-1:59). During the past decade, humans have discovered the great potential and importance of corals. Scientists are discovering new chemistry and molecules in corals that are important to the discovery of new modern medicines including cancer medications and improved antibiotics.
The below video gives a great summary of the problem corals face today and the issues humans face in the process of trying to save corals. It also gives a great look into the future of corals and how we may benefit from them if humans manage to save them.
Benefits of Coral
One of the most precious assets corals provide for humans is money. Economists estimate that the value of the services corals provide are in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Most of the caribbean economies, that do not have many valuable natural resources, almost entirely rely on the money earned through the ecotourism these beautiful ecosystems attract (NOAA, Corals).
On top of supporting the economies of most caribbean countries, corals also provide most of these country's food supply (Marhaver 0:00-1:50). Without coral reefs to provide these fish with a healthy environment to live in, these vital fish species will die off. This would cause massive famines across most caribbean countries.
For the past several decades, humans have been producing pollution of all types and releasing it into the environment. Over time, all of this pollution makes its way to the ocean, where it has a detrimental effect on all marine ecosystems. All of this pollution has released an absurd amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, warming the air and the oceans. Through this warming, a natural phenomenon called ocean acidification occurs in which the oceans become more acidic due to the warming water temperatures. This more acidic water creates less than optimal living conditions for corals, killing them off at an increasing rate (Fears). This rate will continue to increase with the increasing pollution output of humans.
The coral above was killed by another natural phenomenon caused by ocean acidification and warming water temperatures called coral bleaching. This is a process by which the energy providing algae leaves the coral skeleton because ocean temperatures and acidity have created such a hostile environment (Fears). This also shows how these negative consequences of human intrusion build off each other and become worse and worse.
The map above shows how much the surface temperature has changed over the past about hundred years. It shows that the surface temperature of the oceans all around the world have warmed considerably, by several degrees. Even a degree or two change in water temperature is detrimental for corals because corals can only live in a narrow range of temperatures. Over time corals can evolve to live in warmer climates, but this would take thousands of years.
Planting corals is the most common and immediately effective strategy that humans have come up with so far. Scientists have even found the most optimal geometries for corals to attach to along with other strategies to give corals the best chance at survival.
Above is a two ton steel cage that was placed in the ocean near Vabbinfaru island in the Maldives. Scientists found that corals find the cage irresistible to live on when a slight electrical current is run through the cage (Vince). This is just another example of how people's ingenuity is crucial to saving coral reefs around the world.
Scientists have also found signs of hope for corals in the most unsuspecting place in the world: dead coral reefs. Scientists have been finding baby corals on previously pronounced dead reefs. They think this could be because of the baby coral's ability to quickly adapt to its rapidly changing environment (Marhaver 6:40-7:10). A big part of research in corals today is finding out what makes certain corals more adaptable and resilient than others. Scientists must then find a way to use methods such as selective breeding to strengthen future generations of corals and raise their chance of survival. This discovery shows scientists that corals do indeed have a chance to live, but will take some time to recover.
Overall , for corals to survive, humans must continue to utilize our ever increasing knowledge of genetics and technology, create new and innovative methods of promoting coral growth, and persistently research corals in order to fully understand them for important future discoveries. In the end, people need to respect coral and treat them how we would want to be treated because for the past several decades humans have done everything possible to lower corals' chances of survival when all they do is help, feed, and protect people.
Fears, Darryl, “How We Are Contributing to the Destruction of Coral Reefs: Sunscreen.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
Marhaver, Kristen. "How We're Growing Baby Corals to Rebuild Reefs | Kristen Marhaver." YouTube. YouTube, 23 Dec. 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Corals." NOAA National Ocean Service Education: Corals. National Ocean Service Education, 25 Mar. 2008. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.
Vince, Gaia. “BBC – Future – How Can We save our Dying Coral Reefs?” BBC News. BBC, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2017.