Life in the Balance: Coral Reefs Are Declining

Government Report Says Pollution and Climate Changes Threaten Coral ReefsCoral Reef

Coral reefs — a key element in ocean ecosystems that provide not only coastline protection but billions of dollars in benefits from tourism, as well as ingredients used in cutting-edge medicines — are increasingly threatened from the effects of global warming and other hazards, according to a new U.S. government report.

Photo Credit (Getty Images)

The report estimates that nearly half of the coral reefs in areas from the Caribbean to the Pacific “are not in good condition and are continuing steadily on a long-term decline.”

“It’s a pretty alarming situation,” said Jeannette Waddell, the report’s co-editor and a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service. “Coral reefs around the world are confronted by the same types of threats. In some places it is worse. In some places, it’s slightly better. But we’re finding that even remote reefs are showing signs of decline,” she told ABC News. The NOAA report looked at the health of coral reefs in 15 areas under the jurisdiction of the United States and a group of countries called the Pacific Freely Associated States, which include Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia.

A major threat facing corals is climate change, the report says, which affects coral reefs in multiple ways.

First, warmer ocean temperatures cause corals to expel the colorful living algae in their tissues, leaving them with a “bleached” white look.adsonar_placementId=1280605;adsonar_pid=42753;adsonar_ps=-1;adsonar_zw=165;adsonar_zh=220;adsonar_jv=’ads.adsonar.com’;

“It really stresses out the coral and makes them more susceptible to things like disease,” Waddell said.

A major bleaching and disease event in 2005 devastated coral reefs across the Caribbean. In the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, scientists say an average of 50 percent of the coral was lost. Some areas lost 90 percent of their coral.

Another problem for corals is that human-induced climate change is altering the chemistry of the oceans, making them more acidic. It happens as fossil fuels are burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much of that carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, which becomes more corrosive.

“If the ocean continues to acidify, it’s possible that it would preclude corals from growing, because they won’t be able to draw the nutrients and elements out of the water that they need to create the structures that they produce as coral colonies,” Waddell said. “It’s also possible that ocean acidification may become so extreme that it may begin to dissolve the corals that already exist, which would spell disaster for coastal communities.”

A 1997 report in the science journal Nature estimated that the resources and economic benefits derived from coral reefs are worth $375 billion a year.

“Coral reefs only cover about one percent of the world’s surface, but they are a very diverse and important environment or ecosystem,” said Mark Monaco, a marine biologist with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.

“They provide us fisheries, they provide us culture from the cultural resources, they provide us pharmaceuticals, and they provide us protection from storm events,” he told ABC News.

In areas that have been hit by severe tsunamis, experts point out that damage is usually less severe in places with intact coral reefs just offshore.

Scientists who study the medical benefits of coral reefs say there are about 20 compounds in clinical trials derived from the corals themselves or the many organisms that depend on them.

“That biodiversity is holding the key to treatment of diseases current and future,” said William Gerwick, a professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences who holds a dual appointment at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of California San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“As we disturb that biodiversity, and reduce the species’ richness, we change that equation dramatically,” said Gerwick, who was not involved in the NOAA report.

Gerwick points to a drug compound derived from a species of sea squirt — small, colorful organisms that live on coral reefs — that has been approved by the European Union for treating soft tissue cancers. The drug, marketed under the name Yondelis in Europe, is in clinical trials in the United States.

Some corals have recently gotten better protections from the federal government. In 2006, two coral species were designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Climate change isn’t the only threat to coral reefs. Tropical storms, coastal pollution, even boats and their anchors are serious concerns.

“The declining conditions that we’re seeing is exacerbated by having a number of threats work together to cause the decline,” Waddell said.

The report — the work of 270 contributors — is being presented today at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“I think if we don’t change the way we’re going with these reef ecosystems we can’t expect them to get better,” Monaco said. “So we’re going to have to make some hard choices — society-wise, political-wise, economic-wise — to protect these ecosystems.”

NASA warming scientist: ‘This is the last chance’

WASHINGTON (AP) — Exactly 20 years after warning America about global warming, a top NASA scientist said the situation has gotten so bad that the world’s only hope is drastic action.

James Hansen told Congress on Monday that the world has long passed the “dangerous level” for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and needs to get back to 1988 levels. He said Earth’s atmosphere can only stay this loaded with man-made carbon dioxide for a couple more decades without changes such as mass extinction, ecosystem collapse and dramatic sea level rises.

“We’re toast if we don’t get on a very different path,” Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute of Space Sciences who is sometimes called the godfather of global warming science, told The Associated Press. “This is the last chance.”

Hansen brought global warming home to the public in June 1988 during a Washington heat wave, telling a Senate hearing that global warming was already here. To mark the anniversary, he testified before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming where he was called a prophet, and addressed a luncheon at the National Press Club where he was called a hero by former Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., who headed the 1988 hearing.

To cut emissions, Hansen said coal-fired power plants that don’t capture carbon dioxide emissions shouldn’t be used in the United States after 2025, and should be eliminated in the rest of the world by 2030. That carbon capture technology is still being developed and not yet cost efficient for power plants.

Burning fossil fuels like coal is the chief cause of man-made greenhouse gases. Hansen said the Earth’s atmosphere has got to get back to a level of 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million. Last month, it was 10 percent higher: 386.7 parts per million.

Hansen said he’ll testify on behalf of British protesters against new coal-fired power plants. Protesters have chained themselves to gates and equipment at sites of several proposed coal plants in England.

“The thing that I think is most important is to block coal-fired power plants,” Hansen told the luncheon. “I’m not yet at the point of chaining myself but we somehow have to draw attention to this.”

Frank Maisano, a spokesman for many U.S. utilities, including those trying to build new coal plants, said while Hansen has shown foresight as a scientist, his “stop them all approach is very simplistic” and shows that he is beyond his level of expertise.

The year of Hansen’s original testimony was the world’s hottest year on record. Since then, 14 years have been hotter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Two decades later, Hansen spent his time on the question of whether it’s too late to do anything about it. His answer: There’s still time to stop the worst, but not much time.

“We see a tipping point occurring right before our eyes,” Hansen told the AP before the luncheon. “The Arctic is the first tipping point and it’s occurring exactly the way we said it would.” Hansen, echoing work by other scientists, said that in five to 10 years, the Arctic will be free of sea ice in the summer.

Longtime global warming skeptic Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., citing a recent poll, said in a statement, “Hansen, (former Vice President) Gore and the media have been trumpeting man-made climate doom since the 1980s. But Americans are not buying it.”

But, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., committee chairman, said, “Dr. Hansen was right. Twenty years later, we recognize him as a climate prophet.”

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