Why The Dying of the Coral Reefs Brings Planetary Instability

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the great natural wonders of the world.

Stretching for over 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia, it’s visible from space and is considered the largest single organic structure on the planet.

It’s also home to thousands of different species of marine life, including 1,500 different fish, 134 types of sharks and rays, and 30 types of marine mammals.

In other words, the Great Barrier Reef is exactly the type of thing we, as human beings and residents of this planet, should cherish and protect.

But we’re not doing that.

Instead of protecting the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reefs like it, we’re destroying them, and we’re destroying them with climate change.

According to new research from National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the world’s coral reefs are now experiencing the largest bleaching event scientists have ever seen.

Coral bleaching is the name for the process by which healthy corals shed themselves of the algae they depend on to survive.

It can happen for a number of reasons like pollution, extremely low tides, and too much sun, but the type of bleaching that the world’s coral reefs are experiencing right now has one very simple cause: rising ocean temperatures as a result of global warming.

As the Guardian reports, “Coral bleaches when water temperatures are a couple of degrees above the normal summer maximum for longer than about two weeks. Climate change has caused global sea surface temperatures to rise by about 1C over the past century, pushing corals closer to their bleaching threshold. A strong El Niño, as well as other weather phenomena, raised the temperature further this year.”

If nothing is done to reverse this trend, the world’s reefs will vanish, as some already are in the process of doing.

The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is now 93 percent bleached, and has seen one quarter of its coral population die.

There is now a very real concern among scientists that the reef will never return to its former glory.

This is what climate change looks like.

By pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere, we are doing massive and permanent damage to the one planet we call home.

Some of this damage, like the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, we can see, but a lot of it we can’t.

And here’s the really scary thing -- the worst is still to come.

We’re already in the danger zone, and every single day we keep pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere just pushes us closer towards total climate devastation.

We’re also running out of time.

According to Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, we only have until 2036 - 21 years - to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius, the standard cutoff point for “acceptable” levels of warming.

Other scientists, like James Hansen, have an even gloomier view of how much more warming the planet can take. Hansen now argues that we need to lower the limit of “acceptable” warming by a whole degree to 1 degree Celsius - a number we’re already dangerously close to reaching.

At this point, there is no other option -- we have to completely commit a Manhattan Project-style effort on the part of our government to decarbonize our transportation, heating, and electric systems.

We won World War II in 4 years; we could tackle climate change in an even shorter time frame just by using technology that’s already there

The stakes are as high as they come when it comes to climate change, but it’s also an opportunity to fundamentally transform our economy for the better, and create millions of jobs in the process.

A good crisis, it’s often said, should never go to waste.

We have a very small window left.

Let’s do our best to take advantage of it.


c-gull's picture
c-gull 6 years 49 weeks ago

For those that measure life in dollars- A 20% loss of coral equates to about a 1.14 trillion dollar loss in potential revenue from coral species/ecosystems that supply anti-cancer drugs.

The current loss of diversity and net primary productivity is very serious-something that the republican congress ignores because of its religious belief in capitalism. Species are dropping out at an increasing rate and ecosystems can no longer fix the amount of carbon they once did.

As Don Marquis learned in his conversation with a tiny insect (Ant):

"It wont be long now, it wont be long ; man is making deserts of the earth

it wont be long now, before man will have use it up so that nothing but ants and

centipedes and scorpions can find a living on it...................................."

We are being set up by an arrogant few to experience the domino effect of failing ecosytems. They will still have lots of money I suppose--I hope they like eating money because thats about all there will be left.

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 6 years 49 weeks ago

I know of quite a few anti neoplastic drugs that come from the rainforest..what anti cancer drugs come from coral reefs? On another note, we have known about climate chaos since the 1980s, and not much was done with a Democratic majority in Congress either. We are beyond politics, or race or ethnicity or religious squabbles now.

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 6 years 49 weeks ago

We won WWII because both fighting sides, were too exhausted, tired, bombed out and devastated to really fight anymore. we were the pinch hitters who came in after both sides were tired and almost bankrupt. That is an inconvenient truth.

Our refusal to embrace the fact we are neither super heroes nor saviors means we keep entering wars or conflicts and in all honesty, we have not won a definitive victory in a major war since WWII.

Maybe we are not as great as we like to believe...not are we that bright. We keep pushing the date and times back as if us saying that we have 20 more years or we need to get down by 1degreesC makes it so.

Who are we kidding? Are we this intellectually immature? We are in unchartered waters, are already in the climate chaos rapids, can see the edge of the falls and we still like to believe we can prevent going over the side.

We are in the positive feedback loop..on the one hand we speak of it taking at least 1000 years to reverse damage then on the other, we have head up our you know whats saying we have 20 more years to act.

I have no doubt even as the last mammal takes its last breath, some scientist will wheeze about projections, more chances, and give us bonus years to straighten ourselves out.

Can anyone besides Guy McPherson admit we are not running out of time, because time is already up?

43 seconds to midnight and some egg heads are still spotting us an extra 2 hours...voodoo math meets human denial.

mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 6 years 49 weeks ago

"Assessments of coral reef ecosystem health are often made by examining coral cover across space and over time, inside and outside of Marine Protected Areas, before and after a disturbance or across gradients of human population density [11,12,16,33]. However, given the variability in the frequency and intensity of natural and anthropogenic disturbances, coral cover alone is not a reliable indicator of reef health or resilience [35]. At any given point in time coral cover may be in flux, and low coral cover alone does not indicate low resilience or low recovery potential [36]."


"This is, to our knowledge, the first study to comprehensively examine how benthic communities vary across the central Pacific in the presence and absence of local human populations. We provide data from some of the world’s most remote and unpopulated islands and show that in the absence of local human populations these islands were often truly dominated (more than 50% cover) by reef-building corals and coralline algae. These results suggest that in the absence of local human impacts reefs may be more resistant or resilient to global change and provide incentive for local management action on more populated islands. However, we also show that coral cover alone is not the best indicator of the human presence or the absence on reefs across a broad geographical gradient. Because of the incredible diversity present in coral reef communities, it is more insightful to examine the structure of the benthos as a whole than to focus on a single taxon. While corals may have been dominant space occupiers decades or centuries ago, this is rarely the case now owing to global stressors that affect even the most remote regions of the planet. However, just because corals do not ‘dominate’ a habitat does not mean that it is not ‘healthy’."

rds7777's picture
rds7777 6 years 49 weeks ago

Once again Thom rightly crusades for decreasing the use of fossil fuels, but he fails to mention that the single most important activity any one person can do to impact global warming is to decrease their intake of meat and dairy. Thom has blogged on this before but i wish he would include the devastating effects of animal agriculture on the planet every time he discusses global climate change.

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