Recognize the growing importance of environmental conservation
Coral reefs epitomize the beauty and fragility of the world’s ecosystems, but increased ocean temperatures due to carbon emissions mean that even small, local temperature spikes threaten to wipe out swaths of corals already pushed to their limits. This week, as President Donald Trump’s cabinet pulled the wraps off a budget that denies the importance of climate change, researchers at James Cook University in Australia found that the Great Barrier Reef is dying thirty years ahead of schedule due to — you guessed it — rising ocean temperatures. According to a March 15 New York Times article, Professor Terry Hughes of James Cook University stated, “Climate change is not a future threat. On the Great Barrier Reef, it’s been happening for 18 years.” We must protect coral reefs not only for their beauty but also because they are hubs of biodiversity. They are the source of many necessary nutrients in the marine food chain and they also protect coastlines from storms by acting as a natural barrier.
This year, scientists observed “huge sections of the Great Barrier Reef, stretching across hundreds of miles of its most pristine northern sector,” to be dead or bleached according to the same March 15 New York Times article. This most recent bleaching event was the third mass bleaching of coral reefs since 1998, but reportedly the worst by far in terms of scale and damage. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral bleaching is a fast-moving process that occurs due to spikes in local oceanic temperatures. These spikes are thought to be caused by human-induced climate change. The NOAA explains that “when water is too warm, corals will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white.” Not all bleached corals are dead, but they are much more vulnerable and likely to die. When corals bleach, the populations of reef fish and invertebrates that depend on them face starvation.
In 2005, a similar mass bleaching event debilitated large areas of coral reefs in the Caribbean. A March 2007 study conducted at Princeton University evaluated the role of human-caused climate change in the bleaching. According to the study, “coral bleaching is commonly observed when the [sea surface temperatures] exceed the maximum monthly mean — the climatological mean temperature during the warmest month of the year — by 1°C or more for one month or more.” This happened in the case of the 2005 bleaching. The researchers concluded that the thermal conditions found in the Caribbean in 2005 are expected to occur, at most, once every thousand years without human intervention. However, just five years later, similar conditions and another bleaching event happened near the island of Tobago. One anomaly is unlikely, but two is essentially impossible. Human interaction with the environment is causing these destructive events.
No successful cure for coral bleaching has been found, but according to a June 2015 article in One Green Planet, there have been cases of near-full recovery after temperature-induced bleaching events in the isolated Phoenix Islands. Greg Stone, Executive Vice President at Conservation International, contextualized this encouraging sign, saying “in the Phoenix Islands, there’s nothing else going on except heating. There’s no overfishing; there’s virtually no one living there — so it’s really quite an interesting experiment as a sort of control,” according to a June 5, 2015 piece in Human Nature. The case of the Phoenix Islands illustrates that while coral bleaching is caused by temperature spikes, corals can still recover as long as there is no human intervention.
The American government responded to the 2005 bleaching of the Caribbean with an array of research efforts. According to a NOAA report, scientists from both NOAA and the Department of the Interior documented the event in hopes of better understanding how to prevent future bleaching while NASA conducted infrared imaging flyovers in order to map the destruction of the reefs. While these efforts cannot directly restore compromised reefs, they provide knowledge of how the bleaching event occurred and how to limit the damage. Under Trump’s administration and his plan to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, it is unclear how the government would respond to any sort of environmental catastrophe, including another bleaching event.
“We're not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that,” said White House budget director Mick Mulvaney in reference to climate change during a press briefing on March 16, according to a CNN article that same day. It is difficult to understand how anyone can come to that conclusion when confronted with conclusive evidence from the entire scientific community. The current perils of the Great Barrier Reef were set in motion long ago. However, as environmental concerns fall off the political agenda, it is on us to save it.