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The Coral Reefs Are Perishing Alarmingly Fast - How Can We Help?

Our man-made pollution is affecting more than the air we breathe.

By Richard Xu

Fish hover around the reef. Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Despite only covering a small fraction of our Earth’s surface, coral reefs produce a disproportionately greater amount of oxygen garnering them the nickname “rainforests of the sea”. Providing many other benefits such as hosting the majority of the ocean’s biodiversity, breaking waves off the coast to prevent coastal erosion, and supporting economic needs, the coral reefs are no doubt one of nature’s greatest gifts. However, the advent of global warming is quickly decimating these reefs in a process known as “coral bleaching” which could leave us without these beautiful and vital ecosystems in the near future. To understand coral bleaching, it helps to have an understanding of what a coral is and how they live.

Corals aren't dead rocks; they are LIVING organisms!

A Small Polyp Stony (SPS) Coral. Each small bump/hole you see is a polyp.

Corals are marine invertebrates made up of compact colonies of individual coral polyp tissue. A compact colony has amazing structural integrity and thus lays the foundation of most reefs. Corals share a symbiotic relationship with a photosynthetic algae called “zooxanthellae” which resides within the polyp tissue of the coral. In return for the coral’s shelter and resources needed for photosynthesis, zooxanthellae photosynthesizes food for the coral—a by-product of which is oxygen—and removes waste for the coral. This process maintains the reef structure which provides a habitat for a large number of fish, other coral, marine mammals, and marine invertebrates while providing us, humans, with fresh oxygen.

Unfortunately, global warming has resulted in warmer and more polluted ocean waters which has dire effects on these corals. With extreme changes in ocean conditions, coral polyps expel the zooxanthellae algae. This results in the coral outwardly losing color in its appearance, most of which turns a bone-white, a phenomenon known as “coral bleaching”.

A bleached SPS Coral. Zooxanthellae algae is not present, resulting in loss of color.

Without zooxanthellae algae, internally coral are unable to produce food for themselves making them super weak and susceptible to disease. Without nutrients, the coral becomes brittle, and constant exposure to the sun and elements eventually breaks them down into coral rubble. No zooxanthellae-led photosynthesis means no more coral or oxygen. No coral reefs means no more habitats to support marine biodiversity. No marine biodiversity means loss of economic and environmental benefits and, overall, leads to a soulless, lifeless, reef graveyard and a worse off planet.

Before and After Coral Bleaching. Notice the presence of marine fish on the left.

In the rightmost image, the dead coral has been overrun by other algae. Photo Credit

Luckily, there are parallel approaches to help mitigate the effects of global warming on our reefs. A temporary but effective solution has been to take farm-propagated captive-bred corals and reintroduce them into the wild in order to establish the beginnings of a new reef. However, as long as our planet continues to warm up at its current rate, even this temporary fix will barely slow down the fast-approaching “inevitable”. To radically affect these detrimental ocean changes, we need to seriously reduce our man-made CO2 emissions. This can only happen by pursuing impactful lifestyle changes to diminish our carbon footprint, from our daily fossil fuel dependence to our personal consumerism habits. This urgent and necessary behavioral change will be THE responsible approach towards our planet and our generational future with an everlasting positive environmental effect.

How is Nikira Labs’ technology helping? At Nikira Labs, we offer multiple state-of-the art gas analyzers that monitor air quality and greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, in real-time. With our technology, regulated gas emissions can be constantly measured and verified against their compliant limits, and exceedances can be detected and flagged immediately for corrective actions. The latter is an essential step in fighting global warming and providing real-time alerts for operators to intervene, repair, and test the integrity of the fix.

In the meantime, what are some of the immediate actions that you can take to prevent coral bleaching? You can begin to choose sustainable food options, choose reef-safe products, such as reef-safe sunscreen, and be self-conscious of your own fossil fuel usage; these actions will help a great deal. The sooner we make lifestyle changes to protect our planet and its ocean, the longer we will be able to enjoy magnificent and picturesque coral reefs.

1 Comment

Aug 02, 2023

great read! coral reefs really are vibrant and diverse and it‘s heartbreaking knowing we’re slowly killing them due to our carbon footprint. I’ll be sure to do my part in protecting the reefs, thank you Richard!

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