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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the planet’s largest reef system and one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but it may not survive the century.
Coral reefs are on course to become the first ecosystem that human activity will eliminate entirely from the Earth, a leading United Nations scientist claims. He says this event will occur before the end of the present century, which means that there are children already born who will live to see a world without coral.
The claim is made in a book published tomorrow, which says coral reef ecosystems are very likely to disappear this century in what would be “a new first for mankind – the ‘extinction’ of an entire ecosystem”. Its author, Professor Peter Sale, studied the Great Barrier Reef for 20 years at the University of Sydney. He currently leads a team at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
The predicted decline is mainly down to climate change and ocean acidification, though local activities such as overfishing, pollution and coastal development have also harmed the reefs. The book, Our Dying Planet, published by University of California Press, contains further alarming predictions, such as the prospect that “we risk having no reefs that resemble those of today in as little as 30 or 40 more years”.
“We’re creating a situation where the organisms that make coral reefs are becoming so compromised by what we’re doing that many of them are going to be extinct, and the others are going to be very, very rare,” Professor Sale says. “Because of that, they aren’t going to be able to do the construction which leads to the phenomenon we call a reef. We’ve wiped out a lot of species over the years. This will be the first time we’ve actually eliminated an entire ecosystem.”
Coral reefs are important for the immense biodiversity of their ecosystems. They contain a quarter of all marine species, despite covering only 0.1 per cent of the world’s oceans by area, and are more diverse even than the rainforests in terms of diversity per acre, or types of different phyla present.
Recent research into coral reefs’ highly diverse and unique chemical composition has found many compounds useful to the medical industry, which could be lost if present trends persist. New means of tackling cancer developed from reef ecosystems have been announced in the past few months, including a radical new treatment for leukaemia derived from a reef-dwelling sponge. Another possible application of compounds found in coral as a powerful sunblock has also been mooted.
And coral reefs are of considerable economic value to humans, both as abundant fishing resources and – often more lucratively – as tourist destinations. About 850 million people live within 100km of a reef, of which some 275 million are likely to depend on the reef ecosystems for nutrition or livelihood. Fringing reefs can also help to protect low-lying islands and coastal regions from extreme weather, absorbing waves before they reach vulnerable populations.
Carbon emissions generated by human activity, especially our heavy use of fossils fuels, are the biggest cause of the anticipated rapid decline, impacting on coral reefs in two main ways. Climate change increases ocean surface temperatures, which have already risen by 0.67C in the past century. This puts corals under enormous stress and leads to coral bleaching, where the photosynthesising algae on which the reef-building creatures depend for energy disappear. Deprived of these for even a few weeks, the corals die.
On top of this comes ocean acidification. Roughly one-third of the extra carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere is absorbed through the ocean surface, acidifying shallower waters. A more recently recognised problem in tropical reef systems, the imbalance created makes it harder for reef organisms to retrieve the minerals needed to build their carbonaceous skeletons. “If they can’t build their skeletons – or they have to put a lot more energy into building them relative to all the other things they need to do, like reproduce – it has a detrimental effect on the coral reefs,” says Paul Johnston of the University of Exeter, and founder of the UK’s Greenpeace Research Laboratories.
For more background on the fate of coral reefs, see:
- Globe’s coral reefs suffer second worst bleaching on record during 2010 (1/11)
- “The end is in sight for the world’s coral reefs,” explains the former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (12/10)
- Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred
- Nature Geoscience study concludes ocean dead zones “devoid of fish and seafood” are poised to expand and “remain for thousands of years.”
- Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century” — Co-author: “Unless we curb carbon emissions we risk mass extinctions, degrading coastal waters and encouraging outbreaks of toxic jellyfish and algae.”
The day that changed everything had surprisingly little impact on U.S. energy policy.
A decade after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States is still importing as much as 60 percent of its petroleum supply, much of it from the unstable Middle East. And many experts’ predictions for how the U.S. would respond to the attacks have fallen flat: We didn’t open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, for example, or launch an all-out effort to lessen reliance on foreign oil through conservation and alternative fuels.
An even bigger casualty, perhaps, was the expectation that a nation at war would put aside its ideological differences and unite behind a common energy strategy.
“It didn’t take too long to get back to business as usual on energy policy,” said Adam Sieminski, the chief energy economist for Deutsche Bank — who, like many experts, had expected the attacks to aid the push for energy independence, on both the supply and demand sides.
Solar power has been flourishing in nations from Spain to China thanks to government subsidies.
Now, proponents of a technology to bury carbon underground say they should get similar public financial support. Projects to capture greenhouse gas emissions before they hit the atmosphere require big up-front investments, which industry executives say they should not have to make alone.
“You really need incentives of the kind that are applied to renewable energy at the moment,” says Jeff Chapman, the chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association in London. Carbon capture and storage “is no more expensive than renewable sources of energy.”
While solar panels and windmills have captured the public imagination, discussions of carbon capture – a technology that relies on solvents, pipelines and reservoirs – remain largely confined to oil industry conferences and academic papers.
When Tropical Storm Lee pummeled the Gulf coast with wind and rain last week, it left more than local floods and wind damage in its wake. Residents from Florida to Louisiana report the slow-moving gale blew in oily residues, thick tar mats and tar balls, confirming fears that the crude from BP’s historic blowout is far from gone.
Charles Taylor of Bay St Louis, MS, said he went out to investigate right after the storm hit to photograph the beach, taking samples of oily crude and tar with a spoon. Taylor said he offered them to the US Coast Guard at a meeting in Biloxi but no one would take them. “I getting fed up with their ways,” he wrote me in an email.