For those of us that love the outdoors, the ocean is a staple of delight and play. But as our climate changes, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that’s a drag for us water-lovers to discover. Namely: coral bleaching.
What is Coral Bleaching?
A healthy coral society is a dynamic ecological spread, flaunting a rainbow of colors and acting as a lively commune for marine life. But coral die-offs, caused by coral bleaching, are dismantling habitats and wiping vibrancy from the ocean floor. Algae, working harmoniously with the coral that houses it, begins to wither away.
Coral bleaching is a 3-step process. Inside of coral dwells algae, and the two work together for peak functionality. When coral becomes stressed, the algae departs from its protective housing, leaving the coral vulnerable and without a food source. The coral then bleaches, losing its bright color, and is susceptible to quick die-off.
From Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the shores of Hawaii, reefs all over the world are experiencing bleaching. It’s important to understand what causes coral bleaching, why corals are important to our ecosystem, and the devastating environmental effects of rampant coral bleaching.
image courtesy of oceanservice.noaa.gov
Causes of Coral Bleaching
Warmer than average water temperatures are the principal contributors of coral bleaching. Bleaching occurs when corals are unable to process the oxygen from light produced by photosynthesis from the sun, and the biggest factor in this is rising water temperatures. Rising water temperatures, propagated by climate change, are initiating a slow death of corals, and although El Nino events are a regular geological occurrence, these events and elevated storm activity are increasing in strength and frequency, lessening chances for corals to regain algal union after a sudden bleaching event.
The rate at which different corals bleach depend on their geography. Corals near the equator are generally more tolerant of heat than those farther north or south, as it’s been observed that corals at higher or lower latitudes bleach at lower temperatures.
Corals don’t expire after a bleaching event and have the ability to return to normal. But a bleached coral is sick and is vulnerable to mortality.
Why Are Corals Important to Our Ecosystem?
Coral reefs aren’t just a staging arena for brilliant photos and curious divers. Coral reefs are instrumental to the worldwide health of our planet, and damaged coral reefs negatively affect the entire ecosystem.
- In terms of fishing, corals provide a safe space for fish to spawn and spend their juvenile years.
- Reefs protect shorelines from damaging effects of waves and tropical storms. As waves and storms come in, corals act as a slight barrier, breaking apart incoming waves.
- Corals are a potent nitrogen supplier for many marine food chains. They mitigate nitrogen and carbon imbalances, and help to bring ocean levels to homeostasis.
- Economically, coral reefs contribute billions of dollars to tourism industry—the Great Barrier Reef bringing in 1.5 billion dollars alone.
Effects of Coral Bleaching on the Environment
Coral bleaching has immediate, direct effects on the health and well-being of our oceans. Without protective shelter in the coral’s unique biodiversity, many marine creatures will find themselves homeless and vulnerable. 16% of the human consumption of animal protein comes from fish, and without a habitat for fish comes heavy implications.
Natural coastal protection will also be in danger. Shorelines once protected by reefs could be exposed to storm activity, resulting in billions of dollars of potential oceanfront damage. Fisheries protected by coral reefs are in peril, and tourism will take a turn as bleaching erases the enigmatic spirit possessed by a healthy coral reef.
Fragility of coral reefs exposed to climate change and their ecological impacts makes conservation action a pinnacle of importance. Organizations and individuals need to put pollution and climate change mitigation at the forefront of obligations, and developing strategies that protect our reefs is a necessary element in allaying complete coral die-off.
Written by Morgan Sliff. Follow her shenanigans @jahmorgan on instagram