Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A very short introduction

Someone said that the previous post could be a bit hard for some people to read. Sorry about that! Here is basic overview of the project.

The proposition to be tested

Coral reefs are going extinct. It’s happening now – not at some vague point in the future and it will be the first eradication of an entire ecosystem as a result of human activities. The direct consequences for hundreds of millions of people could be catastrophic. The loss to humanity will be irreparable and without precedent.

Is this scare-mongering or - as some scientists believe – for real? If so, what can be done and by who? Can culprits and accomplices be identified and if so what are their names and addresses? What will the destruction do to our sense of ourselves and our place on the planet?

There is no shortage of brilliant, detailed practical work by hundreds or thousands of outstanding people researching the challenges and possible solutions. So why an investigation by a non-specialist with outputs such as a book intended for a wide non-specialist public?

  • Because we just don’t get the scale of the challenges: too few people understand the picture as a whole, and more of us need to
  • Because the stories of those trying to make change for the better are amazing
  • Because most of what’s written and said is hard for many people to understand
  • Because almost all of us need to understand more about what is being lost or could be lost
  • Because it would be great if the gloomy predictions are wrong, and there’s a need to assess if they are

The official story

Officially, things are bad but not terminal. The reefs may be only half dead by mid century (IUCN, GCRMN). Unquestionably, the great majority if not all of this destruction either is or will be a direct result of human action.

Numbers and percentages are clinical, detached from reality. They don’t convey the waste and the brutal mess. A large part of one of the most extraordinary and beautiful phenomenon on Earth have been strip-mined, bombed to smithereens, poisoned or overwhelmed by sewage and pollution, leaving nothing but a graveyard with a few scavengers picking over the bones. The cost in misery and human death has been immense and is likely to increase. Without coral reefs, fisheries disappear and people starve, and shorelines are dangerously exposed to rising sea levels and tidal waves.

The official line remains resolutely optimistic. “We firmly believe that the concerted efforts of the global community can halt and even reverse the decline in the world’s coral reefs”, says the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (the world authority) bouncing up like Tigger after a bad day. “The situation is not hopeless”.

It’s probably true that a lot can be done. But even if, by a series of miracle of political will, vastly more sensible actions are taken (and there are inspiring and controversial examples) – even then, a dark shadow looms that could make all efforts irrelevant; something that many officials – wary of seeming like doom mongers – don’t always like to talk about.

The mass mortality of 1998, in which 80% of corals in many parts of the Indian Ocean died, was supposed to be something that happens once every thousand years or more. But such events are likely to happen frequently in the 21st century. The reason is climate change, and in particular rapid changes in the oceans (see Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2004 ).

Ocean temperatures are rising fast – faster than some climatologists and oceanologists had anticipated until recently – and corals are vulnerable to small temperature rises (ibid). In addition, a phenomenon known as ocean acidification, which until recently has been little studied, could lead to even more dramatic changes (Royal Society, June 2005).


How all of this plays out is highly uncertain. Cascades of coral death with knock-on economic and political instability that in turn causes more destruction? Maybe. But where, when, and how much? How serious is this threat compared to others?

This is an exercise in journalism and science writing, not a crystal ball. But it may help to clarify a picture that, so far, is little understood. It will, I hope, help mobilise capacity to think and engage seriously with the challenges. To take one example, is one scientist I talked to right when he says we should essentially forget the corals of Florida and the entire Caribbean – part of the most wonderful natural heritage of the Americas but now degraded beyond hope and in the last stages of meltdown?

This investigation – based on extensive interviews, travel and other research – will document the extent of the crisis (or the hype), explore what is being done and what can be done, and reflects on what it means. And it will tell the stories of the people on the edge, trying to change things for the better.


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