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Decaying Coral: Hidden Below The Waves

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In a world out of a sight and out of mind, the ocean holds some of the earth’s greatest resources. Your average person may not go diving or snorkeling every day to witness the change in our oceans, but there is sufficient information out there to educate masses what is going on below our waters. According to multiple data over the past few decades, we have seen drastic change and depletion of our coral reefs. Coral are sophisticated animals and are a fundamental part of our ecosystem. They continue to live if the environment allows them to. Humans have the upmost control of protecting our corals from the massive depletion our ocean has seen. Time is precious and coral is racing against time. Although many may never see what goes down under the deep blue sea, the ocean holds the most majestic creatures and they are rapidly diminishing due to climate change. Essentially without a healthy ocean, we do not have a healthy planet.

Corals are more complex than they seem, they are a foundation species which many other species and humans rely on for food, income, and medicine. Well, what is coral? Coral is a sea animal with lots of polyps. Coral can have thousands of these structures, in which is created by just a single organism. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. They can combine to be millions of them across a single animal. Inside their tissue are these microalgae which are a million per centimeter squared. The plant insides them photosynthesize, and the coral uses this for food. Essentially, these corals have food factories inside themselves! The animal continues to grow over its skeleton. They photosynthesize during the day, and at night these animals sleep. Plants inside them are expanded and their polys and tentacles come out. Now, anything that swims by is caught by these stinging cells on tips of these tentacles.

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There are many different coral species and they come in different shapes. Some are boring looking like rocks and others cover massive plates, some look like flower petals, and some are colorful and almost extraterrestrial looking. Some coral even manifest into massive structures that can be seen from space. One of the largest structure ever made in life is the GBR, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It’s length of 1,250 miles is the length of the entire east coast of the US. It is amazing to think about how massive it is!

Every couple of weeks somewhere in the world, a fresh set of coral decays and large sections of coral turn white. In the 1980s, scientists and marine biologists did not know why coral was bleaching. After research and tests, they realize it was not a disease. They experimented that coral turned white because the temperature increased by 2 degrees. These were early signs of impact of climate change. A human may not feel 1 or 2 degrees change in climate, but compare this phenomenon to the human body changing just 1 or 2 degrees. Well that’s the seriousness of the issue when you look it at terms of the ocean. Coral bleaching is a stress response, much like a fever in humans. This is a fatal issue and many choose not to understand or turn a blind eye. It is a misconception that climate change is just an issue in the air. Temperature change in the oceans will change the coral white. Its ability to photosynthesize and feed will be totally impaired and eventually, the polys starve and the corals decay. When coral is bleached, its flesh becomes clear and a bright white skeleton is exposed. Bleached coral will not grow or reproduce and it is very likely to die. If there are fuzzy and sludgy microalgae on its surface, it is an indication that the coral has died. In a timeframe of a few weeks, coral can be vibrant and colorful, then turn into bright white and eventually filled with fuzz and dead. Fifty years ago in the Florida Keys, there was an abundance of healthy coral. Even thirty years ago, coral was still thriving. In the past few years it has been measured that 80-90% of coral have been lost in Florida. These issues have so far advanced.

We see the greatest and most tragic example of coral reef bleaching along the Great Barrier Reef. Hundreds of miles of GBR is already dead. Bleaching hits 93% of coral along the Northeast coast of Australia. The oceans have been devastated due to record warm temperatures of ocean and climate change. This UNESCO World Heritage Site relies on tourism and jobs to keep Australia’s economy strong. The massive bleaching and destruction of this million-year old site brings great frustration to the people and have created an uproar for change and protecting the environment. The rampant destruction of this wonder has caused more people to be aware of coral reefs, global climate change and eager to change our ecosystem.

Like in a city, you’ll see the same people walking around day in and day out. In an ocean, you’ll see the same fish living in the same piece of coral. The fish live their entire lives in this city. Destroying coral also destroys the habitat and food in which fish, lobster, crab, and any other critters that live or depend on. Coral host a huge and diverse population. When coral die, its dependent creatures have to migrate and live somewhere else.

Coral reefs are hugely important, it is essentially a nursery. Approxiametly 25% of all marine life rely on coral reefs. Half a billion to a billion people rely on coral reefs as a main source of food. Without that protein, people are malnourished. So much culture and economies rely on healthy coral reef. Coral also benefits the health industry because many new drugs that help us come from the sea. A drug called prostaglandin which comes from sea fans fight cancer. Bryostatin is a drug that comes from coral rhizomes and also fights cancer. Coral reefs also control waves and produce a break-water that’s protects us from big waves and cyclones. So many things we don’t know yet could help society through the chemistry we find on coral reef. Corals are truly a basis of our ecosystem.

The casualty of coral reefs is due to global climate change. Change in temperature at this alarming pace is not a normal cycle. There has always been cycles of cooler and warmer temperatures, but not at the frequency and capacity we are seeing temperature change today. The heat content in our oceans are increasing due to emission of carbon dioxide. Some people may not realize global climate change is happening because most of the extra heat trapped by greenhouse gases has been transferred to the ocean. When you burn fossil fuel- which is burning gas, oil, or coal, carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has the property to be able to trap heat. Therefore, the more you have in the atmosphere, the greater the amount of heat trapped into the earth. 93% of heat that’s trapped is going into the ocean. That’s a lot of energy.

Other than climate change which has affected our waters and increased our temperatures, there are also other reasons behind coral bleaching. Irresponsible tourism and overuse of boats, ocean acidification, and overfishing in certain waters have disrupted coral life. Hawaii and Israel have also banned the use of sunscreen with two chemicals- oxybenzone and octinoxate which have harmed coral reefs. This makes it the first U.S state to do so, researchers found out chemical with highest concentration was found in coral reefs that were the most popular in tourists If the ocean wasn’t doing its job and absorbing the heat, the average surface temperature of the planet would be more like 122F. The average surface temperature is 58F. But the water temperature has been rising and coral have been dying. Coral is being threatened in our lifetime and on our watch. Some people don’t care enough to be the change and use alternative or renewable energy. Hopefully the shift in technology can shift faster than the destruction of coral. “The bleaching of coral has been worrisome for the last 15 years.

Coral can bounce back quickly, but only if we give them the opportunity and right now, the waters are just getting warmer and warmer. The public does not realize how significant climate change is. The entire ocean is under threat.” Jeff Orlowski, director of documentary Chasing Coral. Coral reefs are valuable for many reasons. In addition to providing habitats for marine organisms and helping protect coastal areas from storms and wave action, they’re often of vital importance to the tourism and commercial fishing industries. And as destruction of our oceans continue to rise, we may forget what our oceans used to look like. Creatures that have been around for millions of years are dying in just a few weeks, and that is definitely something to think about. The world must wake up because losing the Great Barrier Reef should not happen. Soft and bright corals should not turn into barren rock face in a matter of days.

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