Coral reefs are beautiful—there’s no denying that. What you might not realize, though, is that they’re so much more than a pretty backdrop for ocean photos.
Coral reefs—which are actually animals, by the way!—play a vital role in protecting coastal cities from waves, storms, and floods. They’re also incredibly important to biodiversity and support 25 percent of all marine life. They have economic and social benefits as well.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “over half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection.” This is largely due to the tourism industry and fascination with snorkeling and scuba diving. Sadly, coral reefs around the world are losing the stunning, florescent colors they’re known for. More and more have been turning white, indicating stress—a phenomenon called coral bleaching.
What Is Coral Bleaching, and How Does It Happen?
According to NASA, the ocean is continually heating up due to global warming. In fact, it holds “93 percent of the heat from human-induced global warming.” While a rising ocean temperature isn’t good for a long list of reasons (including food security, extreme weather, and beyond), it also results in coral bleaching.
The National Ocean Service says too-warm water expels algae, called zooxanthellae, living in the coral’s tissue. Because algae is the primary food source of coral reefs, their departure stresses out the coral and causes it to lose its color. It also makes coral reefs more susceptible to disease.
When a coral becomes bleached, it’s not immediately doomed: There’s still a chance of survival and for the bleaching to be reversed. With that being said, if the algae loss is prolonged, experts say that high amount of stress will cause the coral to die. Other factors like low tides, pollution, and too much sunlight can cause coral bleaching, too.
Sadly, coral bleaching is happening at an alarming rate. The NOAA says between 2014 and 2017, a whopping 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs experienced bleaching due to stress from too-warm water. Unfortunately, that heat was enough to kill 30 percent of the world’s reefs. Just last year, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia went from “significant concern” to “critical” for the first time.
“Occurring at an average rate of once every 25 to 30 years in the 1980s, mass bleaching now returns about every six years and is expected to further accelerate,” said the scientists. “Severe bleaching is now occurring more quickly than reefs can recover, with severe downstream consequences to ecosystems and people.”
How You Can Help Save Coral Reefs
You don’t need to live near the ocean to help out the coral reefs. First and foremost, the most important thing you can do is work on stopping climate change. Small changes add up, and there are many ways you can help, including composting food scraps, supporting companies that care about the planet, and using sustainable swaps.
It’s not just what you do at home that matters, either. The next time you’re on vacation, use reef-friendly sunscreen. Also take the time to research the hotels or resorts you’re planning on staying at. According to the Smithsonian, “some tourist resorts empty sewage directly into the water surrounding coral reefs.” Because of that, choosing and supporting eco-friendly lodging options can make all the difference.
And if you get the chance to explore the ocean, be careful. The Environmental Protection Agency says to avoid touching coral reefs if you’re snorkeling, as doing so can cause damage. Hopefully these changes lead to a brighter future for coral reefs—not the pale white one they’re becoming far too familiar with.