kat1003 at cus.cam.ac.uk
Mon Oct 19 13:09:26 EDT 1998
For those of you who do not have access to USA Today.
October 19, 1998
Coral in peril as reefs suffer worldwide
By Kathryn Winiarski, USA TODAY
Coral reefs worldwide are bleaching and dying in record numbers, experts
say, because of warmer-than-normal water temperatures.
Severe coral bleaching, which occurs when the limestone skeleton turns
white and the tiny coral animals die, was recorded this year in at least
Marine biologists say that hardly a reef ecosystem on the globe was
unscathed - from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the Seychelles in the
Indian Ocean and from Belize in the Caribbean to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A continuing, large-scale decline of reefs could mean economic trouble for
millions of people who rely on the beautiful limestone formations to
support fishing grounds, attract tourists and protect shorelines from
waves and storms.
''These corals are dying from heatstroke,'' says Thomas Goreau, president
of the New York-based Global Coral Reef Alliance. While most people have
little concept of the problem because the coral is under water and out of
sight, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, established by President Clinton in
June, is expected to present plans for preserving coral reefs at a meeting
this week in Key Biscayne, Fla.
The administration has requested about $6 million through 2002 to help
restore damaged reefs overseen by the United States in the Atlantic,
Caribbean and Pacific.
''It is estimated that two-thirds of the world's coral reefs are dying,
and that is why this meeting and initiative are so important,'' says D.
James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Corals that have thrived for hundreds of years suddenly died in 1998,
according to a report to be released Nov. 19 by Reef Check, an
international coral assessment program. Divers surveying reefs throughout
the tropics found that up to 90% of some species of coral were dead.
Before the 1980s, wide-scale bleaching was not even observed.
The world's reefs have faced plenty of threats before. They are besieged
by overfishing, destroyed by boat anchors and killed by dynamite and
cyanide used to capture fish for aquarium hobbyists. Reefs also are
routinely battered by storms and by divers, and subjected to disease,
pollution and predation.
But high ocean temperatures inflict damage on a more global scale. They
cause the microscopic plants that live in coral tissue to stop
functioning. The zooxanthellae provide corals with color, food and most of
their ability to rapidly grow skeleton. Without them, corals can die.
''The analogy I use is, you keep a starving individual without food for a
long enough time, they're going to die,'' says Raymond Hayes, an anatomy
professor at Howard University and vice president of the Association of
Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.
This year brought the hottest sea-surface temperatures since 1982,
according to NOAA satellite data.
At first glance, severe El Nino warming events, which took place both
years, appear to bear some blame. But bleaching also took place in regions
not affected by El Nino.
Scientists such as Goreau and Hayes blame global warming. They say reefs
will rebound only through dramatic reduction of fuel consumption.
In global warming - a phenomenon that remains doubted in some scientific
camps - the burning of fossil fuels emits excessive carbon dioxide,
trapping heat around Earth like a thick blanket.
Representatives from more than 150 countries will meet in Buenos Aires,
Argentina, next month to continue work on an emissions reduction treaty
that was begun in Japan in 1997.
Other scientists say that warming of ocean waters could just be the result
of nature's unpredictable flux.
''We all hope that this is a severe one-time event,'' says Gregor Hodgson,
founder of Reef Watch and a coral ecologist at the Hong Kong University of
Science and Technology. ''If global warming is involved and the bleaching
will be repeated, then we are in very serious trouble.''
Corals recover from bleaching only if the waters do not stay too hot for
Alina Szmant of the Coral Reef Research Group at the University of Miami
says she is encouraged that some Florida reefs showed early signs of
recovery in September.
Meanwhile, the coral reef task force is expected to pursue simpler
solutions to reef troubles: reducing the numbers of vessels that slam into
reefs, educating divers against touching coral and creating reef patrols
that would be strategically stationed in U.S. waters.
But ''it will all come to naught, unless we get a firm grip on the global
warming problem,'' Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt says. ''Every nation
in the world has a stake in getting it done.''
Time may be running out.
NOAA says that at least 10% of the world's coral reefs already are
destroyed, and some experts say the number is much higher.
Reefs also are increasingly subjected to emerging diseases that kill
corals at rates not thought possible, says marine biologist James Cervino
of the University of South Carolina.
Under current conditions, death could claim 40% of the world's coral reefs
''Scientists are now waking us up to the threat,'' Babbitt says. ''There
is a crisis.''
Kristian A. Teleki Tel +44 1223 333399 (General)
Cambridge Coastal Research Unit +44 1223 339775 (Direct)
Department of Geography
University of Cambridge Fax +44 1223 355674
Cambridge CB2 3EN Email: kat1003 at cus.cam.ac.uk
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