Coral Reefs Are Changing So Fast, Scientists Say We Need To Rewrite The Playbook


Time is running out to save the worlds imperiled coral reefs and humanity must enact sweeping changes if theyre to live for much longer, an international team of scientists warns.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, coral researchers say the reefs of the past will probably never be seen again because human activity has devastated them. But despite dramatic obituaries for structures like Australias Great Barrier Reefand mounting concern that thereslimited timeto save them, scientists say there is still hope for the structures.

Were trying to get past the gloom and doom, said study lead author Terry Hughes, director of Australias ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Theres no shortage of people saying that 90 percent of the reefs will be dead soon. Were trying to find a way forward.

We can still have reefs in the future that will look OK in terms of supporting reef tourism and fisheries and the other benefits that they provide to people, he added. Theyre just going to be very different ecosystems.

Hughes and his co-authors from organizations including the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Center for Atmospheric Researchcalled for radical changes in the management and governance of the worlds reefs. This would include attempts to meet emissions targets that the Paris climate agreementset in 2016 to thwart the worst effects of climate change,diminish overfishing and reduce poverty around reef ecosystems.

Global warming often garners the majority of attention, as it is by far the biggest threat to coral formations sensitive to even slight changes in temperature. But the papers authors say many reefs are also suffering death by a thousand cuts.

Reefs suffer simultaneously from dredging, over-harvesting, pollution, sewage, sediments and steadily increasing temperatures, said Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute marine ecologistJeremy Jackson, a co-author of the paper, in a statement.

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Credit: Greg Torda/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
A mass bleaching event killed more than two-thirds of parts of¬†Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Human activity has already dramatically altered many of the planets coral reefs in recent years. Most recently, the Great Barrier Reef was hit with the worst mass bleaching event in history and researchers said up to 95 percent of parts of the reef had been affected. It was just the third mass bleaching event recorded and killed more than two-thirds of parts of the Great Barrier after the reef was baked in warm water for months.

Scientists predict such events could happen with far greater frequency as climate change continues. The papers authors write the world now faces a fundamentally different reality [where] it is no longer possible to restore coral reefs to their past configurations.

A lot of people are still looking to preserve reefs to what they looked like in the past, Hughes said. We dont think thats feasible anymore … Were arguing that peoples behavior and how they interact with coral reefs needs to be addressed. The coral reef crisis is a crisis of governance.

The group points to recent efforts like those made by the Coral Triangle Initiative, a partnership between six governments in Southeast Asia and several environmental groups to craft a sustainable plan to save local reefs. Such efforts allow multiple stakeholders to address a problem bigger than any could tackle on its own.

Hughes said that despite the terrifying news surrounding reefs in recent months, theyre not doomed. But time is of the essence and there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity.

The group ended the paper with a call to persist in the conservation fight.

We should not give up hope for the persistence of Earths coral reefs, the authors write. To steer coral reefs through the next century, we will need to be bold, to embrace change and to recognize that securing essential services from coral reefs will require a new approach to science, management and governance.

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