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Why Are Coral Reefs Dying — and What Can You Do to Help Save Them?

There are many threats to coral reefs. If we lose them, it could devastate the planet. Here's why coral reefs are dying—and how to save them.

Written by
Angelica Pizza

Coral reefs are more than just beautiful, colorful bodies in our oceans. They're incredibly important animals that play a major role in maintaining marine biodiversity and protecting and feeding coastal communities. However, our beloved coral reefs are at risk.

Global warming, climate change, and human activity are all leading factors in what's negatively impacting coral reefs. From coral bleaching to rising ocean temperatures to an increase in chemical pollution, there are several reasons why coral reefs are struggling to adapt and survive. But with the help of passionate changemakers, we could see improvements in coral reef survival rates and an increase in biodiversity.

In this week’s episode of Good Together, Brightly’s founder and CEO Laura Wittig speaks with Jolyon Collier, the president and founder of the nonprofit Counting Coral, to discuss what exactly is happening to coral reefs and what the nonprofit is doing to help.

How Bad Is the Coral Reefs Crisis?

According to Forbes, scientists estimate about 70-90% of all coral reefs will disappear over the next 20 years. Why? Because high ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and pollution are threatening them. And Collier says the rate at which coral reefs are dying is alarming.

"We've lost 50% of coral reefs to date," Collier says. "And that's only happened in 30 to 35 years, so we're looking at very small timelines, and massive problems in those small timelines. It's predicted that in another 30 years, most coral reef ecosystems can be at the point of collapse and functionally, not being able to reproduce fast enough to keep up with the effects of ocean temperatures rising."

Collier also says coral reefs support about 25% of marine life and losing our coral reefs could be detrimental to marine ecosystems. Let's look at what's specifically harming coral reefs and why—plus individual actions you can take to help.

Why Are Coral Reefs Dying?

1. Warming Ocean Waters

According to Collier, oceans absorb about 93% of the heat and energy caused by global warming. When the oceans absorb this heat, their temperatures rise. And when the temperatures rise, coral reefs struggle to survive.

"What ends up happening is the ocean temperatures rise," Collier says. "And most tropical hard corals and soft corals can survive between 75 and 85 degrees of temperature in the water. Once it goes past that, they're at the limit of survival. Unfortunately, because of global warming and ocean temperatures rising, those temperatures are in excess of 97 degrees in certain parts of the world."

According to NASA, as ocean temperatures rise, sea levels rise and Earth’s ice sheets melt. Warmer ocean waters could also lead to more intense hurricanes and changes in marine biodiversity.

Plus, it causes coral bleaching. Changes in living conditions, including temperature increases or light exposure, can lead to coral reefs expelling symbiotic algae. This turns coral reefs completely white, leaving them vulnerable to disease.

2. Ocean Acidification

Collier also says a leading factor in what's harming coral reefs is ocean acidification—or the reduction of the ocean's pH due to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The list is probably about 20 or 30 different chemicals that go into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, CO2, and all the rest of it," he says. "All that gets trapped in the atmosphere rains down into the ocean through storms, and that adds to the pH balance being changed."

Studies show that changes in ocean pH levels can weaken coral reefs—specifically their skeletons. Research shows that the skeletal density of Porites corals could decrease by about 20% due to ocean acidification alone. 

3. Ocean Pollution

Ocean pollution caused by human activity and industrialization is another driving factor in what's threatening coral reefs. Collier says microplastics are one of the main pollutants, and they cause diseases in coral reefs when corals consume them.

"Microplastics are now really, really tiny, and they're in our oceans in the trillions of tons. And corals eat them," he says. "The disease has gone from 4% to almost 98% when they can consume these plastics because it's petroleum-based—it's a chemical."

Additionally, ocean pollution comes in the form of physical plastic and garbage in the water or in the form of toxic chemicals. These pollutants smother corals, hinder reproduction, and cause changes in food structures, according to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Why Coral Reefs Are Vital to Humans and Marine Life

To many of us, coral reefs are just a beautiful sight to see under the ocean's surface. However, that's not all coral reefs are good for.

Coral reefs are vital to marine ecosystems: They increase biodiversity and provide food and shelter to other organisms. But that's not all. Coral reefs are also extremely important to coastal communities.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coral reef structures also protect shores from about 97% of the energy from waves, harsh storms, and floods. This helps prevent property damage, erosion, and even the loss of life.

The NOAA notes that when coral reefs are destroyed, coastal communities lose that barrier. Thus, the absence can lead to destruction as a result of harsh storms or waves.

That's why Collier founded Counting Coral. The nonprofit's mission is to restore coral reef populations to be sure we don't lose them. How? Through the development of Sculptural Coral Banks, a coral propagation technique that aids in healthy coral growth.

"We allow these corals to grow to spawning maturity," Collier says. "They will then naturally propagate these dead reef systems with climate-resilient corals. So they'll just kind of naturally grow on their own. But in addition to that, we've protected them; they're now off the seafloor. They're away from predators."

How You Can Help Save Coral Reefs

1. Eat More Plant-Based Foods

Animal-derived foods come with a massive carbon footprint, so choosing to eat more plant-based foods can effectively decrease your individual environmental impact.

According to experts, substituting high-impact foods with low-impact foods can decrease your carbon footprint by up to 48%. And Collier says choosing not to eat meat or fish can help combat climate issues.

"Meat production is accounting for all of our emissions," he says. "Right now, it's accounting for massive deforestation in Brazil and all over the world. It's accounting for gigantic dead zones in our ocean. And then fishing is probably easily 98% or 96% loss of all breakdowns of all fisheries on our planet right now."

2. Use Reef-Friendly Sunscreens

You can't go to the beach without wearing sunscreen: Our skin needs protection from the sun's harsh rays. However, most sunscreens contain harsh chemicals or plastic packaging—both of which harm coral reefs when we go for a swim in the ocean.

Collier says it's important to check the labels on your sunscreens to be sure the sunscreen you use is reef-friendly. Check out our roundup of reef-friendly sunscreens—and try zero-waste sunscreens, too!

3. Educate Yourself

Tackling major climate issues can be difficult, especially if you're not sure where to begin. One of the easiest ways to get involved is to stay in the know. That means researching current issues, like the threats to coral reefs, and determining where you can make small, doable changes.

Making changes in your daily routines, such as cutting down on waste or traveling more sustainably, can add up to a big difference.