Grief for the Reef

Coral depicted before and after the bleaching effect

Throughout our time on this planet, humans have taxed the environment in many extreme and often unalterable ways. In the modern day, millions of acres of forests have been destroyed, hundreds of animal species have become extinct, and civilization now faces one of the largest world issues of the century: global warming. While these problems have certainly carved out their respective spaces in international environmental controversy and policy action, one subject remains fairly undiscussed, and without help and further community outreach on its behalf, will soon become subject to complete elimination.

The world’s reefs are in trouble. It’s not a new topic but the lack of emphasis and media coverage on the subject could certainly lead the public to believe it so. Huge, lush, colorful sections of the Earth’s oceans are dead and dying. Mass bleaching, as it’s been dubbed, is a strange event that occurs when high heat and bright sunshine cause the metabolism of algae (which give coral reefs their distinct coloration and energy) to speed out of control and eventually start creating harmful toxins. Unimaginable portions of the world’s reefs have undergone this transformation from living, breathing landscape, to dead, grey wasteland because of an excess of these toxins in their habitat.

Damaged and dying reefs have been found worldwide, in areas such as Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar, to East Flores, Indonesia, and from Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific to the Florida Keys in the Atlantic. One of the largest noted bleaching events in the 21st century is that of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, confirmed in March by Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force. About six-hundred twenty miles of once, gorgeous, bright reef had been found to suffer significant bleaching.

Another massive reef, the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, located some fifty miles off the coast of Belize, is part of the Mesoamerican reef system, the world’s second largest system of its kind, spanning twenty-six miles from north to south. The reef’s trademark and previously thriving staghorn and elkhorn coral, grand branching coral vital for sustaining the health of the reef, are disappearing. Piles of dead branches and and rotting coral litter the sea floor near the remaining reef structure, while ghostly patches of bleaching and peculiar algae can be spotted on the the coral still standing.

According to much of the international scientific community, the source of these mass bleachings and reef collapse can be attributed to a strange merging of events, each of which raised water temperature already boosted by the detrimental effects of climate change. Some of the most impactful events have occurred within the last two years alone. In 2014, a large underwater heat wave formed in the northeastern Pacific and stretched along the west coast of North America. The wave was reported as up to four degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding waters and has been blamed for a myriad of strange events, including sea-lion beaching in California and tropical skipjack tuna sightings in Alaska. In 2015, the world bore witness to one of the most powerful El Niño climate cycles in a century, blasting heat far and wide across the tropical and southern pacific, bleaching reefs across the Indian Ocean and along Africa’s east coast.

As a whole, the world is currently facing one of the most dangerous and harmful reef crises ever recorded and it’s our job as an international community to do something about it. Emphasis on topics such as climate change and mass-deforestation are certainly important to act upon, but coral reefs hold their place in society for millions of plant and animal species too, not to mention the millions of small-scale fishermen and women who depend on reefs for their livelihood. As a planet of individuals dependent on travel, commerce, exploration, and entertainment by sea, we owe to the globe to protect one of the most beautiful components of the world under the ocean, our coral reefs.

Art by Kai Song
Article by Sam Falb