Corals Reefs Will Be Wiped Out By 2050, Expert Says

coral and fish photo

Photo by laszlo-photo via Flickr creative commons

First the news was that if we don't change our habits around fishing, all the world's fisheries will be wiped out by 2050. Now, experts guess that if we don't significantly change our interaction with the ocean, coral reefs will be all but wiped out by that same time. J.E.N. Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, writes that human pollution of the water, as well as human-generated carbon dioxide emissions which are causing ocean acidification and rising ocean temperatures are rapidly killing off corals. He notes that without a radical change in our behaviors and priorities, we will be left with a bleak future for the oceans, and consequently, ourselves. In an article on Yale 360 Environment, Veron writes that the major issues include mass bleachings caused by warmer water, which kills off zooxanthellae, the algae with which coral have a symbiotic relationship, and ocean acidification.

Warming temperatures are deadly to the corals and 2010 may prove to be one of the warmest, and therefore most lethal, summers on record for Caribbean corals and others across the globe. And the high temperatures of 2010 will become lows if carbon emissions aren't curbed.

"Ecosystems can recover from all sorts of abuse, and coral reefs are no exception. Good recoveries from bleaching have been observed, provided that further events do not occur while the ecosystem is re-establishing. Unfortunately, there are no signs that greenhouse gas increases are moderating, and so we can assume that the frequency and severity of bleaching events will continue to increase -- on our present course, the worst bleaching year we have had to date will be an average year by 2030, and a good year by 2050," writes Veron.

As far as ocean acidification goes, the culprit is the same -- rampant carbon dioxide emissions. We discuss the problem of ocean acidification fairly often on TreeHugger, but Veron puts it succinctly, "The potential consequences of ocean acidification are nothing less than catastrophic."

"All organisms that produce calcium carbonate skeletons (including shells, crabs, sea urchins, corals, coralline algae, calcareous phytoplankton, and many others) depend on their ability to deposit calcium carbonate, and this process is largely controlled by the prevailing water chemistry. As alkalinity decreases, precipitation of calcium carbonate becomes more and more difficult until eventually it is inhibited altogether."

Veron notes that acifidication may cause its worst effects by 2030-2050, meaning that by 2050, the deck will be stacked entirely against corals and we'll see them disappear from the planet, and along with them, a wealth of species.

While dire, the news comes at a time when we still have a moment left to change our behaviors and perhaps spare our oceans from a complete wipe-out. Curbing carbon emissions means thinking intelligently about our travel habits, the heating and lighting of our homes, and other daily life basics that have far-reaching effects.

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