Our boy Leo isn’t the only one who’s drawing attention to climate change. This week, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority issued an urgent warning and implemented a “level once incident response” in response to increased coral bleaching throughout the expansive reef system. While currently only shallow reefs are experiencing bleaching, authorities and nonprofits believe that many other areas of this natural wonder are susceptible to bleaching and may experience fatal bleaching events in the coming years.
Coral bleaching occurs when the zooxanthellae symbionts, which live inside coral reefs and provide energy to the corals via photosynthesis, are expelled from the coral itself. This happens under periods of prolonged environmental stress, usually warmer water temperatures or increased levels of sunlight. Since shallower corals typically exist in warmer waters and have less protection from sunlight, they’re at greater risk of bleaching than reefs at deeper depths. However, as climate change continues to warm our ocean, significant coral bleaching becomes a relevant threat that needs to be addressed.
Coral reefs not only provide large amounts of revenue to the ecotourism industry; many shallow water reefs can decrease wave and storm energy that would otherwise devastate coastal communities. These reefs also provide vital habitat for many economically important fish and invertebrates, and are an important component in many tropical and warm water ecosystems. Coral bleaching is not only an environmental concern, but an economic one as well. We can expect to see reduced populations in many tropical fish species, greater storm damage for island nations or coastal cities, and a less productive ecotourism industry if we do not take protective steps to ensure these habitats survive.
Since bleaching is largely tied to rising sea surface temperatures, addressing coral bleaching comes down to addressing climate change. While it’s unreasonable to suggest that our global community gain complete independence from fossil fuels in the next five to ten years, there are steps we can take in that time frame to cut down on our reliance to this environmentally-damaging resource. By using less energy in your household, driving less and biking more, and buying local, organic produce, you can reduce your personal carbon footprint and help make your own contribution to climate change as little as possible. Communities as a whole will also need to begin electing and appointing leaders who prioritize combating climate change, so that policies can be put in place to affect large-scale change.
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