Climate change and the status of the world’s reefs

We no longer have the luxury to say that ‘ecosystem protection is preffered over restoration.’

Corals dying due to warming ocean temperatures

Localized Threats

Human activities pose localized threats to reefs, which are often clearly visible. Some of these threats can be tackled effectively by halting the harmful activity and allowing the reef to recover on its own, or through active interventions like creating artificial structures to rehabilitate the damaged structure of the reef.

Global Threats

However, reefs are also facing global threats, primarily from climate change. Rising sea temperatures are causing more frequent and severe bleaching events, drastically changing the reef’s composition. Additionally, the ocean’s chemistry is changing, becoming more acidic and impacting marine organisms’ ability to form skeletons and shells.

The effects of ocean acidification due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are only now beginning to be investigated or realized. Many scientists believe we have already well exceeded the 350ppm upper tolerance threshold for corals (as of writing, the atmospheric carbon levels are about 415 ppm. Before the industrial revolution, it was around 270ppm).

The threats caused by climate change are already well underway, changing the face of the world’s reefs by decreasing coral health, abundance, and biodiversity. These changes are occurring so quickly (and are compounded by localized threats) that coral reefs may not be able to adapt in time and could largely go extinct.

Methods of coral reef protection and restoration that have been effective in the past may no longer be today, and it is time to refocus these efforts on increasing reef resilience and helping the corals to adapt or cope with climate change

Traditional methods of protection and restoration might not work anymore, and we need to focus on enhancing the reef’s resilience and aiding them in adapting to climate change.

Because the threats of climate change cannot be removed through passive restoration, passive restoration will not solve the problem. Reef areas cannot simply be closed off and allowed to recover on their own. Active restoration is becoming increasingly vital to save the reefs and protect the resources and economies derived from them. There is now an immediate need to develop methods that increase the resilience of coral reefs or their ability to withstand and recover from disturbances.

In the next lessons, we will discuss some of the mainstream or most popular coral reef management techniques available to local or community-based managers. We will discuss the effectiveness of these programs and also identify their weaknesses or reasons for failure. This will help us to understand how we need to shift our understanding and way of thinking about coral reefs to facilitate their protection in the 21st century.