Glimmer of hope?
Thermally tolerant algae may allow at least some species to adapt to an average 1 to 3 C temperature rise on the Great Barrier Reef, it's thought (see here for more).
Will tropical coral reefs be the first ecosystem to be eliminated by climate change?
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
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
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.
Here's an elevator speech for this project:
Tropical corals reefs may be first entire ecosystem to be eliminated as a result of climate change, in combination with other factors. Is this alarmism? Half-truth? What – really – can and should be done? Reefs are vital to the lives hundreds of millions of people. Public understanding and awareness are at a very low level. A popular, accessible but serious publishing project, including a book, that reaches large numbers of people can help.
There is no shortage of people ready to doubt and discourage, or to say there will be little interest in this endeavour. Well, we’ll see.
Even if the threats to coral reefs are serious, how high should they rank on a list of global priorities?
The distinguished climatologist Hans Joachim ("John") Schellnhuber does not, for example, include them in his map of "Earth System Tipping Points" (see summary at Oops). I recently wrote to ask him why. He said:
"I fully agree with you that the tropical coral reefs are endangered by global warming and - very important - ocean acidification. The reason why I did not include them as an "Earth System Tipping Point" is the fact that there is no clear analysis available yet how their destruction would affect the planetary machinery as a whole (or how their decline would at least impact on a regional scale). It is obvious that there will be local effects like coastal destabilization.
If you have good arguments for expecting large-scale impacts, please let me know. My tipping points map is a living beast anyway that changes all the time because of pertinent input such as yours".
I answered that I did not know any good arguments for expecting large-scale impacts on the "planetary machinery as a whole", and sent John’s comments to Tom Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Here are extracts from Tom’s response:
"I very much like John's mode of thinking and am delighted that this is reaching the popular press.
…the current generation of climate models appear to be missing the vast bulk of positive feedback mechanisms that MUST exist in the Earth climate system [and] whose existence is revealed by analysis of the long term empirical climate data (ice cores, deep sea cores, etc.) which is why I trust data far more than models. We all agree qualitatively that things will get worse much faster than models suggest, but we really don't know how high they will get and how long this will take, due to uncertainty about the actual rates.
…For example our global coral reef [sea surface temperature] database shows that there are already important changes in ocean circulation taking place in every part of the ocean. These have profound effects on climate change, but are not included in the models. We are seeing an increase in the flow of heat in the
…While I agree with [Caspar] that coral reefs should be listed in ALL global compendia of major tipping points because it is the richest ecosystem in the sea and the first which will be effectively destroyed by global warming with devastating environmental and economic consequences to over 100 countries from loss of biodiversity, fisheries, shore protection, tourism, etc.
[But] John is right that this does not trigger global environmental changes. Coral reefs account for half of the limestone burial in the sea, and although many naively think this is a CO2 sink, it is in fact the major natural net source of CO2 to the atmosphere...the net amount of CO2 added to the atmosphere by coral reef growth is 50 times LESS than we put in from fossil fuels, which gives you an idea how anthropogenic effects have overwhelmed natural processes. The bottom line is that loss of coral reefs will be a catastrophe for almost all tropical marine countries, but it does not in itself trigger various global climate feedbacks. That is to say this is a major tipping point RESPONSE, rather than being a DRIVER of future changes".
Ariel. Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Prospero. Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.
Prospero. And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion'd as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel.
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves.