Hello coral reefs, you say goodbye, or “No Justice, No Reefs”

It can’t possibly be as bad as the scientists say, can it? The extinction of all coral reefs within a human lifetime? How does that possibly make sense?

The injustice of the coral reef crisis, and global oceanic degradation, requires many fundamental changes in understanding and in behavior in order to bring justice. It seems insurmountable. It might make you crazy. But it is essential.

Read the evidence for yourself, and start here with this listing of valuable resources (each bullet is a link). I’ve shared it with my friends at the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, and I hope it will inspire a year or two of in-depth stories.

Will Great Barrier Reef lose is greatness? (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Marine Photobank").
Will Great Barrier Reef lose is greatness? (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Marine Photobank”).

With 2015 likely bringing an El Niño pattern, the next few years could be devastating for the world’s warm-water coral reefs. Dubbed the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs contain 25% of all oceanic species, or biodiversity, and they are the threatened with complete extinction this century.

Resources for El Niño:

Recent El Niño years (strong 1997-8; also 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07 and 2009–10) resulted in higher ocean temperatures that forced many corals into a stressful state called “bleaching” (actually the expulsion of algae), and bleaching becomes fatal if temperatures remain high for extended periods and the coral’s algae does not return. The worst mass bleaching events were in 1998, and many reefs converted from a healthy coral-dominated state to an algae-dominated state. An estimated 16% of the world’s coral reefs died due to the 1997-98 El Niño.

Resources for coral bleaching:

Children born today will witness the unfolding extinction of all coral reefs during their lifetime, if the status quo continues, according to the consensus of coral experts.

Resource for consensus:

Resource for world’s reefs:

The coral reefs of the greater Caribbean region are poised to become the first large ecosystem extinction ever witnessed by humans.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.
This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

They are more vulnerable than Pacific reefs because of less biodiversity and extreme human pressures. The reefs around Florida are considered a “global worst case scenario” according to the 2014 report “Status and Trends of Caribbean coral reefs.”

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).
Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

The coral reef crisis is one of the most tragic environmental stories imaginable. Problems with the story include an “out of sight” mentality and fatigue of scientific doom. It has no singular celebrity, movement, or icon (like the polar bear).

A few decades ago, reefs were marvels of diversity and productivity that seemed indestructible. Today, they have been effectively cut in half from the first scientific observation, around the mid 20th century.

Resource for history

Reefs are essential and superlative ecosystems for many reasons. Coral reefs are the most valuable ecosystem per unit, yet their total value has diminished from $21.7 billion in 1997 to $9.4 billion today (based on values from Constanza).

Resources for economic value

A listing in September 2014 brought 20 coral species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, joining the previous 2 listed in 2006. These 22 species represent an exceptionally large listing of invertebrates; there were only 54 total marine animals listed as of 2013.

The IUCN has an analysis showing that the extinction risk to corals has rapidly shifted: “Coral species are moving towards increased extinction risk most rapidly, while amphibians are, on average, the most threatened group” (see graphic below). But no modern coral species has been confirmed extinct yet.


Graphic from: IUCN Red List Summary Statistics (2013). Trends in the status of biodiversity.

Resources for endangered species

Resources for Caribbean reefs/issues


If you’re really inspired, join the big email Coral-List that connects coral researchers around the globe.

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