Nature and Biodiversity

There's still time to save coral reefs, experts say

Coral reefs

Coral reefs support 25% of marine life. Image: UNSPLASH/Oleksandr Sushko

Mike DiGirolamo
Audience engagement associate, Mongabay
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Nature and Biodiversity

  • The world has lost half of its coral reef ecosystems since the 1950s.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that with 1.5°C of warming we could lose up to 90% of the world’s coral reefs.
  • This amount of warming could happen in as little as six years.
  • Experts say there’s still time to save coral reefs, by addressing the three largest impacts to reefs: land-based pollution, overfishing and climate change.

Coral reefs are a unique and biodiverse natural ecosystem and economic keystones for many communities and nations. They only cover about 0.2% of the ocean floor but support 25% of marine life. Roughly a billion people worldwide depend on them for food and income. Coral reefs are also the bedrock of many important drug research developments and breakthroughs. However, climate change, overfishing, and land-based pollution are causing these reefs to perish at a swift pace.

How can we save them? Watch the video below for the full story.

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“Problem Solved” is a video series by Mongabay examining big, systemic, environmental issues and potential pathways to addressing them. The second video in this series uncovers our impacts on coral reef ecosystems and interventions needed now to save them.

With the help of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and the head of the Allen Coral Atlas, Greg Asner, Mongabay dives into the largest impacts to reefs, and the solutions currently on the table to address them. While climate change doesn’t affect all reefs uniformly, experts warn that it’s an existential threat. Climate change must be addressed for any interventions to work in the long term. Other interventions include addressing human and land waste, and the overfishing of waters globally.

Orange clownfish in ocean.
'Benjamin Horton, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, which studies climate change, said coral reefs are in an urgent predicament.' Image: The Perfect Ocean.

Land-based pollution, mostly in the form of human effluent and agrochemicals, affects roughly two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs and requires governments and scientists to work together to improve waste management globally. Six in 10 individuals on the planet currently don’t have access to proper sanitation. Overfishing continues to be one of the major threats to reefs, as many reefs depend on fish and other marine creatures to survive. As of 2017, only 65% of global fish stocks were at sustainable levels.

Experts say reef restoration technologies and practices, such as breeding and replanting efforts, are important. However, they should not be viewed as a “silver bullet” to the coral reef degradation as the climate continues to warm. A recent study highlights that increasing ocean temperatures brought on by climate change could wipe out even safe havens or “refugia” where corals can recover from heat stress if the world reaches 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) of warming above pre-industrial levels. And as things stand, we’re currently on track to reach even higher temperatures than that without more aggressive action.

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