Earthwatch scientists assert coral reef decline is symptom of climate change
World Oceans Day - 8th June 2006
Last month coral species staghorn and elkhorn were registered as Threatened under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). This is the first time a coral has been listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA, casting new focus on the ecological demise of coral reefs. In response, Earthwatch scientists working in the Caribbean concluded that drastic coral decline in the last 25 years is likely to be a product of climate change, in addition to outbreaks of coral disease.
"The deterioration of corals such as elkhorn and staghorn is a symptom of a problem that is impacting coral reefs around the world - that problem is global warming," says Earthwatch scientist John Rollino, from Earth Tech Inc. "In 2005, huge portions of the reefs in the eastern Caribbean underwent drastic declines due to coral mortality from above average water temperatures. Some of the individual coral colonies that perished last year were alive over a hundred years ago."
Earthwatch research teams working with Rollino have collected data on coral decline in the Bahamas for the last 14 years. When the research began elkhorn and staghorn coral species were very common in the Caribbean, their dense thickets providing crucial habitat for fish and other reef animals. In recent years, however, both species have practically disappeared, declining by an estimated 90 to 98 percent since 1980.
"In the Caribbean, the decline of these species is the result of global warming, increased sedimentation, degraded water quality, disease, increased storm activity and tourism damage," says Rollino. "In addition, last year there was a severe coral bleaching event in the Caribbean, caused by temperature change. If bleaching continues for an extended period, and corals fail to recover soon after, they will die."
When corals die, the reef ecosystem becomes dramatically disrupted: algae take over the reef and faunal distribution subsequently changes. These changes pose a serious threat to coastal human populations and communities. Coral reefs are a valuable global and regional resource, as they provide an economic opportunity and nutritional sustenance, as well as protection against storm surge.
"We must try to eliminate or minimise non-climate stressors in order to give corals maximum time to acclimatise and adapt to rising temperatures," says Dr Roger Mitchell, Earthwatch Chief Scientist. "It is essential that scientific research continues to inform management plans. To help to find solutions in what is a crisis situation, Earthwatch is supporting coral reef research projects around the world."
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