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Threats and Consequences

As of 2001, over 57% of the world’s coral reefs were either dead (10%), dying (17%), or threatened (30%). Rapid population growth is driving up energy requirements, as well as production of industrial and agricultural waste. Marine environments are coming under increasing pressure from the consequence of these human activities.

The largest single threat, however, now appears to be climate change. Each species of coral exists within a narrow environmental range. Even slight changes in any of these parameters can therefore have a serious impact upon certain coral species. Additionally, the increasing intensity and frequency of storms such as those associated with El Niño Southern Oscillation events has resulted in the devastation of very large areas of coral. In fact, 16% of the world’s corals were affected by the 1997-1998 “El-Nino” event.”

Due to the unprecedented rate of environmental change over recent years and the expected continuation of this trend, there is concern that some communities of marine organisms that are unable to evolve rapidly will suffer irreversible damage. Effects upon marine micro-flora and fauna have already been reported and include changes to distribution patterns, functional impairment of organisms, and alterations to reproduction cycles, affecting complex food webs.

Other environmental stressors such as the introduction of non-native species, agricultural run-off, sewage effluent, tourism, and over-fishing are also negatively impacting fragile marine ecosystems such as those associated with coral reefs.

Scientists believe that the oceans have absorbed nearly half of the CO2 produced by human action since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The increasing CO2 levels in turn affect the oceans’ acidity levels. The increasing acidity is changing the life cycle of many marine organisms, threatening their extinction, and risking further destruction of coral reefs. Scientists now expect that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will reach 450 parts per million by 2040. This level is now believed to be the point of no return for coral reefs, after which they will go into terminal decline around the world. After that, regardless of how we control carbon emissions, coral reefs will be extinct by 2100.

The loss of coral reefs would be devastating to one of the world’s largest pools of biodiversity. Coral reefs help seed the ocean and provide shelter and food to a complex web of organisms that leads all the way up to man. They act as natural barriers to shorelines, protecting them from the effects of the water. As the coral reefs die, coastlines become more susceptible to damage and flooding from storms, hurricanes, and cyclones.

Without the coral reefs the ocean will not be able to absorb as much carbon dioxide, leaving more CO2 in the atmosphere.

The loss of the coral reefs would have a devastating impact on tropical countries’ economies, food supplies, and the safety of their coastal communities. These impacts immediately affect the richer industrialized countries that depend on seafood from coral reef ecosystems.

• El Niño Southern Oscillation
• Global Impact of Carbon Dioxide
• Ocean Acidification

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