Climate change worsens prospects for coral reefs' survival.
New report reveals massive coral losses in Caribbean in 2005.
Solution includes supporting local communities' and governments' efforts to better manage their reefs.
January 24, 2008—Coral reef experts and supporters launched the International Year of the Reef 2008 in Washington this week calling for greater efforts to combat climate change to protect the world's biologically complex ocean ecosystem.
"Ten years ago, we knew that reefs around the world were severely at risk, primarily from coastal development, overfishing and pollution. Now, climate change has darkened the picture for reefs, and for the tropical developing countries whose economies depend on them," says Kristalina Georgieva, Director of Strategy and Operations of the World Bank's Sustainable Development Network.
Recent scientific research links damage and loss of coral reefs worldwide with global warming, says Georgieva.
Abnormally high sea surface temperatures in 2005 caused coral bleaching and "massive coral losses" in the Caribbean, according to a new report released today at a reception hosted by the World Bank on behalf of the Mexico-United States Secretariat of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a partnership among governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations.
The report by ICRI, Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, and the International Year of the Reef says a record hurricane season that year also considerably damaged reefs.
Climate Change Pushing Reefs Over the Edge
Scientists estimate the world has already lost 30 percent of its coral reefs, mostly from the effects of over-fishing, nutrient pollution and habitat conversion, but coral bleaching and increasingly acidic seas—both associated with climate change—are exacerbating these effects, and pushing many coral reefs over the edge.
Record hot years in 1998 and 2005 stripped normally colorful reefs of nutrients and bleached them white-a sign that they are stressed and possibly dying. At the same time, carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans has made the oceans more acidic. It's more difficult for reefs to recover from storm damage and other assaults and for reefs to keep up with sea level rise in such an environment, note scientists.
An estimated 100 million people in coastal areas in developing countries depend directly on the reefs for food and their living, either through fishing or tourism.
Research by 17 scientists published in the December 14, 2007 issue of Science suggests the tipping point for coral reefs would be CO2 concentrations of 450 parts per million in the atmosphere. CO2 levels are currently about 380 ppm.
"There is a narrow window to act," says Marea E. Hatziolos, World Bank Senior Coastal and Marine Specialist and a co-author of the Science paper. "Coral reefs as we know them will be gone by 2050 if steps are not taken now to drastically reduce CO2 emissions so that atmospheric CO2 is stabilized at 450ppm.We need to turn things completely around within the next 10 years to prevent a massive die-off of coral reefs."
Critical to Health of Oceans
While some estimate the loss of reefs amounts to tens of billions of dollars per year, many consider the ecosystem critical to the health of oceans and beyond monetary value. Coral reefs in tropical oceans are home to myriad species of fish, animal and plant life which are essential to reef productivity and the benefits they provide.
Coral reefs also protect coastal areas from storms. Category 5 Hurricane Wilma generated storm waves off the coast of Cancun equivalent to the force of 25 atomic bombs, but coral reefs cut the impact by a factor of 100, to the equivalent of a quarter of an atomic bomb's strength, estimates Roberto Iglesias-Prieto of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.
Palau, a small island developing state in the Pacific, is dependent upon the coral reef systems that surround it. “Losing coastal protection of our coral reefs could lead to a loss of about 10 percent of our total land mass where 80 percent of our agriculture takes place,” explained Noah Idechong, a member of the National Congress. “Consider also that revenue from diving tourism is crucial to our economy, and you can see how dire the potential consequences are for the people of Palau.”
The World Bank, in partnership with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and others, has been supporting conservation and sustainable use of coral reefs for more than a decade.
Today, the Bank, GEF, University of Queensland and US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) support international teams of coral reef scientists from around the world working at research centers of excellence in Mexico, the Philippines, Tanzania and Australia. Their "cutting edge" research supported the findings in the Science article and informs policy and management decisions affecting coral reefs.
"We know that in addition to reducing CO2 emissions, supporting local communities and governments to better manage their reef systems is an important part of the solution," says Georgieva.