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Coral Reefs: Their Importance and Subsequent Destruction

By Sanjana Bajaj

Coral reefs are one of the most important ecosystems on the planet both environmentally and
economically. Over the past few decades, due to various human activities, they have come under
the threat of extinction. However, recently, coral reefs have bounced back across two-thirds of
the Great Barrier Reef. This article shines a light on what this means, and why it is important. It
also looks at ways we can accelerate the growth and health of coral reefs across the planet.

Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the planet but are a vast, intricately interrelated ecosystem that support 25% of all species. They shield beaches from storm-related damage, offers marine life a home and habitat, and aid in water filtration and recycling. The reefs support millions of dollars in tourism revenue and give many people a means of subsistence through fishing. Additionally, the diversity of the coral reefs holds promise for medical breakthroughs, treatments and cures. It is biologically diverse, unique, interconnected and resilient but also faces imminent and life-threatening problems due to climate change. Rising sea temperatures have already destroyed more than half of the world’s corals.   

Coral reefs are resilient, they have a natural ability to recover from environmental impacts, but they are also increasingly under pressure. From local threats like pollution and overfishing that destroy the ecosystem to record-breaking global bleaching events, the world’s coral reefs have been through a lot over the past few years. However, climate change remains the biggest threat to coral reefs over time because it threatens the foundation of the entire ecosystem. It also leads to more concentration of carbon dioxide in the water, which leads to ocean acidification and a weaker and more vulnerable coral skeleton. Climate change is also a significant factor in the increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as storms and cyclones that destroy coral reefs. 

Over the past decade, multiple bleaching events and hurricanes have damaged the coral reefs, especially the great barrier reef. Many believed that getting them back would be next to impossible, especially with the rise in global warming. And even if they could be brought back, sustaining their long-term health with the increased climate change would take a lot of effort. 

This year, however, there is good news as coral reefs have bounced back across various parts of the great barrier reef. This was mainly due to a lack of massive cyclones that the area received, along with efforts taken by the Australian government. This means that the reefs can recover but not on their own. To save the reefs, humans need to stop activities that are helping to tear down this dynamic ecosystem. This means slowing global warming, stopping climate change, and at the same time developing innovative ways to renew the world’s reefs. 

It is essential to save coral reefs because apart from being home to millions of species, they also act as a barrier and protector for coastal cities worldwide. The reefs by acting as natural barriers also save billions of dollars in damage. More than 3 billion people live near the coastal reefs and are dependent on them for food, livelihood and protection. 

One such effort taken to restore the reefs is in the US with underwater nurseries for corals by the Coral Restoration Foundation. They run the largest open ocean coral nursery program in the world, where the corals grow from finger-sized fragments to reef-ready colonies in 6 months. They are then returned to the wild, where they have already restored over 30,000 square meters of reef area. Since 2007 when the foundation first began, they have planted more than 170,000 corals in Florida alone. 

On the other side of the world, Australia is home to the biggest ecosystem of coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef while the most famous is not immune to the problems caused by climate change and rising temperature. In 2018, the Australian government announced a $500 million boost to help improve the water quality and expand reef restoration. It also includes funds to fight against the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish which have been one of the major causes for the depletion of corals. The Australian government also works closely with the farmers to prevent agricultural run-off and sedimentation and reduce fertiliser use to improve water quality. The bigger problem still is climate change. The government cannot protect the reef without cutting carbon emissions and doing its fair share to prevent global warming. Australia is the sixth-largest contributor to climate change and reducing carbon emissions is one of the best ways to protect the reef. 

Coral Reefs are mainly present in the tropical belt and the countries in this region are developing countries that are not the main contributors to climate change but are the ones who have suffered a lot because of it. Corals are sensitive to rise in temperatures, and with the rise in carbon emissions, the global temperature also rises which leads to dead corals. They are extremely important industries for countries like the Caribbean, Indonesia and India among many others. Every action we humans take against climate change helps save and protect the reef. While this may not be easy, it is vital to restore and protect the coral reefs. 

Sanjana Bajaj is a third-year student at O.P Jindal Global University majoring in economics.

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