Earth’s oceans are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, but rising temperatures are leading to the extinction of many marine animals, including corals. New research on managing the effects of climate change on these organisms says more international cooperation is needed to secure the future of more than 6,000 species of coral.
“Coral reefs are an important ecosystem on our planet,” said Andrea Grotoli, co-author of the study and professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University. “Coral reefs are really important to humans because they protect coastlines from erosion and storms, and they are necessary for some services such as tourism and other parts of the economy.”
A study published in the journal Biology of global changeadvocates the use of mesoscale reserves or areas that can stretch for thousands of miles, often across national borders, to protect these oceans.
“Global warming is now a threat to coral reef number one,” Grotoli said. “So when we think about conserving coral reefs, we can’t limit ourselves to arbitrary geographical boundaries.”
Ensuring a “continuum of conservation” will bring great benefits to reefs, Grotoli said. But because conservation policies differ between different governments and politicians, it can complicate environmental protection.
Although coral reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the surface area in the Earth’s oceans, about 30% of all marine species are in some way related to them, Grotoli said. But due to the stress associated with rising sea temperatures, coral reefs around the world are experiencing higher rates of coral discoloration or visible pallor surface pallor.
When bleaching coral the skeleton of an animal, ever darkened, becomes visible and actually turns the creature into a faded, ghostly white. Although bleached corals are not immediately dead, they can lead to mass mortality. Researchers say mass cases of bleaching are an indicator of deteriorating ecosystem health.
Many people may be most familiar with corals through the Great Barrier Reef, a complex coral system so large that a living structure can be seen from space. Located off the coast of Australia, the region is visited by more than 2 million tourists each year. The attraction brings in about $ 36 billion annually.
However, despite the fact that GBR is the most protected marine area in the world, it has recently suffered another massive bleaching, the fourth time in just six years.
While climate change has undoubtedly contributed to the increase in the frequency and intensity of these events, the warming of the seas is also changing the composition and architectural complexity of coral reefs. “In this reality, the future of coral reefs may seem bleak,” the publication said.
But there is also good news. Even as the world’s coral population is shrinking, the genetic diversity of coral species helps ensure that some corals can adapt and recover. And while there is an urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, the study also suggests that in the meantime we need to use broad transdisciplinary approaches to creating both local and large-scale ocean reserves.
Grottoli believes that much of the hard work of rescuing corals will happen through education.
“People who understand coral reefs and understand the value of coral reefs are more likely to do something to help protect them,” she said. “If you know nothing about corals and have never seen them, how can you sympathize with or feel connected to this ecosystem?”
As president of the International Coral Reef Society, Grottoli and her colleagues have even put together a series of actions that people can take at home to help scientists in conservation efforts.
This study was supported by the National Science Foundation.
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