Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Papua witness

I am en route to Raja Ampat in West Papua, which lies in the centre of the "coral triangle", and may harbour the greatest marine biodiversity on Earth. A focus for the expedition is the leatherback turtle population, which has probably co-existed with these reefs for many tens of millions of years.

It seems a strange thing to be doing when the world is tearing itself apart. But if by writing about it I can help more people think a little more about part of the biodiversity we are losing then maybe it will be worthwhile.

By way of background spiel, an article shortly to appear at Artists' Project Earth is attached as a comment to this post.


Blogger Caspar Henderson said...

Coral Future

This article will be published at

On 1 November 1952 "Mike", the world's first hydrogen bomb, vaporised Elugelap island and other parts of the Enewetak atoll in the South Pacific. In the half century or so since then humans have destroyed around a quarter - some say a half - of all tropical coral reefs. On present trends rest will be gone within another fifty years or even less. How much does it matter? What is causing the destruction and what can be done to prevent it? Coral reefs are perhaps the most complex ecosystems in the oceans, and probably the second most biodiverse on Earth after tropical rainforests. In less than 0.1% of
the oceans (which cover more than 70% of the planet) they contain more than a quarter of its species. They are places of extraordinary beauty and wonder – a treasure in the common heritage of humanity.

Five hundred million to one billion people depend on coral reefs for their livelihood and well being. Millions rely on the reefs for most of the protein in their diets. Many more derive additional benefits such as protection of the shoreline from erosion and storms, and revenues from tourism. Without the reefs, people starve or are impoverished – and the world is made more dull and ugly.

Despite their natural abundance and fertility, reefs are extremely vulnerable to human action. Dredging, sewage, agricultural pollution and destructive fishing practices such as the use of explosives and cyanide have destroyed reefs across the world. Recovery, if it happens at all, could take many human generations.

But even that recovery is in doubt. Climate change in the 21st century will likely cause a rise of in global average temperatures of approximately 2 to 5 degrees Celsius, and possibly more. Scientists say an average rise of little more than 1ºC for just a month per year can lead to massive depredations of coral reefs, and less than 2ºC can cause widespread reef death.

1998 and 2005, both exceptionally hot years, saw massive mortality of corals across the Indian ocean and Caribbean respectively as well as some other areas as a result of warmer seas. Such conditions are likely to be normal within a few decades at most. There is some ability for corals to adapt, but most scientists think this highly unlikely to be sufficient given the rapidity of human induced changes.

But even if the most conservative estimates of climate change prove to be exaggerated – something the overwhelming majority of scientists says is most unlikely – another consequence of fossil fuel consumptions is likely to kill the reefs. Ocean acidification, caused by the rapid draw down of man made greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, compromises the ability of all life in the sea that makes its shells or skeletons out of calcium carbonate. Impacts will be visible first in high latitudes, but changes are likely to affect tropical regions too before the end of the 21st century.

So what to do about it? Action is urgent at many levels – from effective global action to reduce emissions fast to small projects with indigenous and local coastal communities to conserve and in some cases restore the priceless resources from which they derive bodily and spiritual well being. Artists, musicians, activists and others can play vital roles in building awareness and supporting some of the most visionary and well-grounded projects that focus on people and justice as well as the natural wonders.

There are a million amazing stories out there. Not all of them are grim and hopeless. Now is the time to get involved.

Caspar Hendersonis an advisor to Artists' Project Earth. He is writing a book on the future of coral reefs. See

10:08 am  

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