It felt like we had stepped into a scene from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as we glided along the Great Barrier Reef in a ten person submersible. Outside the window, gigantic clumps of taupe brain coral, Elkhorn and Stag coral slipped past. Lavender and lettuce-green sea fans waved gently in the current. Plump pink and purple anemones raised their tentacles to trap their next meal. And all around and through the coral forms, a rainbow of tropical fish wandered – blue and yellow Tang fish, yellow grunts, orange and white striped clownfish, and so many others I couldn’t identify.
It was February 2002 and we were on the adventure of a lifetime with our four kids, then ranging in age from twelve to five. “Wow!” a collective intake of breath swept through our little pod as a sea turtle big enough for one of them to ride floated silently by on the other side of the glass. And as we moved past a shadowed opening in the reef, high-pitched shrieks erupted when an enormous olive-green moray eel whose mouth was all teeth emerged, on the hunt for its next meal. Our scheduled dive of the reef had fallen on a day with chop that made the sea too rough for snorkeling with small children, but in the submersible we were able to motor to the best viewing spots of the incredible variety of plants and creatures.
As longtime residents of Florida, we’d enjoyed snorkeling in the Keys and the Bahamas, but the scale of what we were seeing here was completely different. The Great Barrier Reef appears to be a rocky structure upon which things grow and swim, but the reef itself is actually made up of the accumulated exoskeletons of innumerable individual living organisms stacked upon each other, the marine equivalent of a high-rise apartment building. It is the largest living structure on earth, visible from the moon. We felt blessed to have the opportunity to visit it, and the thousands of plant and animal species that call it home.
Coral reefs are critically important to the planet’s health. More than 90% of all marine species are directly or indirectly dependent on the coral reefs, even though they make up less than 5% of the ocean floor. These places are the rain forests of the sea; according to NOAA, they provide habitat to more species of fish, hard corals and other organisms per unit area than any other marine environment. And NOAA estimates there may be as many as eight million species within the coral reef ecosystem that have not yet been discovered. Who knows how many medically useful substances might be waiting for discovery there, as in the tropical rainforests on land?
Fast forward a decade and a half from that submersible ride to May 2015, when CNN reported that as much as 93% of the Great Barrier Reef had recently suffered bleach damage.
Headlines like these are becoming commonplace:
We’re now in the third straight year of elevated ocean temperatures causing the worst worldwide reef destruction in history. Analyzing cumulative data, scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science project the demise of all the reefs by 2100 if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue.
When I read these reports I want to weep. I think of our experience there just fourteen years ago – the submersible ride through an underwater wonderland of strange and beautiful fish, mammals and plant life – and it’s hard to imagine that in this short time parts of that place, then teeming with life, are now a white skeletal structure devoid of color, animals or plants.
Coral bleaching occurs when ocean temperatures rise so high that the corals become stressed and expel the algae that live in symbiosis inside them. Without its algae the coral turns white and starves, and if temperatures remain elevated for too long they die. But the elevated water temperatures create other problems as well.
Warmer water is more acidic and makes reef regeneration after damage more difficult. It also holds less dissolved oxygen, which affects not just the reefs but other fish and animals in the ocean. Marlin and sailfish have already been curtailing deep water diving in search of prey. As deoxygenation becomes more severe, affected waters will no longer support life at all for some fish and crustaceans; populations of large fish such as tuna, cod, swordfish and marlin have already declined; some scientists report by as much as 90% over the last century. And areas of warming are increasing in size. An April 2016 study showed a devastating decline in oxygen levels in many areas of the Pacific Ocean, which by 2030 to 2040 will wipe out populations of marine life dependent on oxygenated water.
The fate of the Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs worldwide, should be an urgent wake up call for all of humanity. Our planet surface is 70% water, and the health of its water is critical to the survival of life on the planet. The reefs are a barometer of that health, and they are failing. Human-driven climate change might steer us off the cliff of existence if we don’t change direction, and change it immediately.
What will the world look like if we don’t? In areas where colorful and vital coral reefs exist today, stark white boulders and skeletal branched antler-like forms will be all that remain to remind us of what we’ve lost. The stench of rotting animals will saturate the waters around these graveyards. Those periodic algal blooms and red tides along coastal waters? They will become commonplace, the sulfurous smell of rotting vegetation, the sickly sweet odor of dead and decaying fish and mammals, and the respiratory difficulties in susceptible people in beach towns – all will define a new normal. As many as five hundred million people will starve or become climate refugees.
The sad truth is that we aren’t taking very good care of what we’ve been entrusted with. My Christian faith forms my own views on this; we are called to be stewards of God’s creation. But even if you feel no particular religious or philosophical urge to care for this most vulnerable piece of earth, you would do well to be motivated by survival instincts. The reefs are the canaries in the planetary coal mine; their death presages conditions hostile to life in the ocean, and by extension, the planet.
There are some recent glimmers of hope. Efforts like Sweden’s pledge to become one of the first countries to end its dependence on fossil fuel entirely, and the sharp uptick in renewable energy production in countries like Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, Scotland and Ireland, are encouraging signals that humanity might yet recognize the crucial role the oceans play in the health of the planet, and the devastating effects the last hundred and fifty years’ explosion of carbon emissions have had on them. The business world, too, is beginning to see that there is money, and lots of it, to be had in developing renewable energy and non-petroleum based products.
As individuals, there are many actions we can take to spur the corporate world to move in more planet-healthy directions. Some of these actions are ridiculously simple. Turn out lights when you leave a room, use canvas bags for shopping instead of plastic ones made from petrochemicals, recycle paper, plastics, clothing. So many easy changes can be steps to free us from our addiction to petrochemicals and fossil fuels.
We will not stop global warming by switching out incandescent light bulbs for LED ones. But changed habits change people’s paradigms, and changed paradigms are what changes the world. The most influential player in the capitalist system is the consumer who drives it – you and me. If we don’t buy it, they won’t make it. Of course I recognize that I am less than a drop of water in the grand scheme of things. I am one molecule, maybe less. But imagine what we might do if each of us took simple and easy steps like these. Collectively we would unleash a tsunami of change.
Perhaps the current plight of the reefs will force us to wake up to the danger of unchecked planetary abuse. By all means, let us hope and pray that it is so. But let us also act.