Coral Reefs

Our survival depends directly upon the health of our global ecosystems.

Coral covers only about 0.2% of the Earth’s surface, yet coral reefs support 25% of all marine life with more density of life in reefs than any in other ocean habitat.

Many marine species are making this coral reef their home. Photo by A. Seale.

Our life as humans depends strongly on coral reefs as well. Over 1 billion people depend directly on reefs for their livelihood. Coral reefs contribute over 30 billion dollars to the world economy each year. New strains of antibiotics are emerging from coral reef studies to help fight diseases.

Coral reefs help drive our weather and provide shoreline protection for human homes and cities, buffering areas from potentially damaging storms and ocean swells.

In Kaneohe Bay, the barrier reef protects Coconut Island, the home of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and where our lab is located as well as Oahu in the background, the most populated island in the Hawaiian Island chain. Photo by A. Seale.

Additionally, coral reefs play a critical role in the carbon cycle of our planet, by taking calcium ions and dissolved carbon dioxide from the water and turning it into calcium carbonate forming their hard skeletons. This allows our oceans to become a sink for the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

While coral helps us in many ways, currently, coral reefs are in trouble and need our help. Coral reefs are facing both local and global threats that may lead to their extinction, possibly within our lifetime.

Locally, coral is being impacted in many ways. Construction runoff from development can smother coral reefs. Runoff from agricultural lands that is too rich in nutrients can also cause algal blooms which too can smother reefs. Coral reefs are damaged when tourism goes unchecked and snorkelers or divers are not educated about how to treat our reefs. Many of these threats can be prevented through outreach and education, but they still continue to harm coral reefs worldwide.

Globally, coral reefs face more threats, mainly from rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. As temperatures rise, corals around the world are becoming stressed and bleaching, or expelling the tiny algae which live symbiotically inside of them. Once this happens the corals quickly die.

A blenny sits atop a bleached coral head. Photo by A. Seale.

As carbon dioxide continues to increase in our atmosphere, it is also pulled down into our oceans. Coral reefs act as a sink for carbon dioxide, but they cannot uptake it all and the ocean is becoming more acidic due to increased dissolved carbon dioxide levels. As this happens, coral reefs are at risk of having their skeletons dissolve. You can imagine how the acid in sodas can clean a penny and harm your teeth, much the same will happen to the skeletons of corals as the ocean becomes more acidic.

As coral reefs die or possibly dissolve, their structures will be lost forever. Billions of ocean creatures will loose their homes. Shorelines will be left unprotected and the world economy will be impacted. The Reef Recovery team is working towards building both live and frozen banks to guard against this imminent loss of coral reefs.

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