Of all the species in the ocean, corals definitely have a seat at the popular table. People travel all over the world to see coral reefs. They are represented in art, clothing, décor, and food. They even have their own Pantone color – an attractive peachy-pink tone – that is much prettier than “algae” green or “shark” gray. Yet, of all the attention given toward corals in popular culture, very little of it actually connects to the fact that they are in trouble. Big trouble.
Many factors are at fault for the current predicament of corals. To give a little backstory, humans starting causing big problems for the environment during the industrial revolution of the 19th century; but scientists didn’t become interested in studying the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere until much more recently. Only in the past 50 or so years did researchers learn that carbon dioxide (CO2) was relatively stable for thousands of years prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, but since then atmospheric CO2 levels are rising at a rate 100 times faster than pre-industrial times . And even more recently did anyone look into the effects of rising CO2 levels in the ocean…
We now know that over 30% of CO2 released into the atmosphere is absorbed into the world’s oceans . The oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere to relieve pressure and maintain global carbon equilibrium, but this balance is fragile. If too much atmospheric CO2 enters the ocean, the equilibrium is upset and a surplus of hydrogen ions creates a more acidic medium (hence, ocean “acidification”). Even a very slight decrease in ocean alkalinity can have huge negative impacts for corals. Corals depend on carbonate (CO3-2), a product of the balanced carbon cycle. When too much CO2 enters the oceans, carbon cycle reaction changes and results in a net loss of carbonate. Without carbonate, corals do not have the minerals needed to grow stronger or larger .
Unfortunately, corals do not demonstrate the ability to adapt to ocean acidification as quickly as changes are occurring . Over time, reefs become less resilient to ocean climate change and degrade. Furthermore, an increase in ocean temperature of only 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels may result in widespread loss . Even worse, the areas with the highest mean annual surface temp today happen to be where the most biodiverse coral communities exist .
Global climate change is a ginormous and fairly well-known problem, but the plight of corals is not given much time in the limelight. Herein lies the problem. Clearly people love the colors, shapes, and symbolism of corals…but this admiration is disconnected from current issues. So what can we do? There are many steps that humans can take to reduce the amount of CO2 that ends up in the ocean…but first people must be inspired to take those steps. Corals are already loved, but like the trees reefs cannot speak for themselves. If more people understood how their actions harm corals, perhaps they would be inspired to change their behavior. It is just a matter of redirecting the hype.
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