Coral Reefs

All life on Earth began in the oceans. Maybe that’s why so many of us love to swim and play in the salty ocean water. At the heart of this dynamic and beautiful ecosystem lies coral reefs. These living organisms come in a seemingly endless array of shapes, sizes and colors, and they help support an incredible assortment of fish, plants and other aquatic life. Simply put, there is nothing as magical as floating slowly over the top of a dense coral forest. In fact, people come from all over the world to swim the coral reef areas in Hawai’i, from Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (Oahu) to Honolu’a Bay (Maui) to Kealakekua Bay (Big Island). Coral reefs surround all of the Hawaiian Islands and 25 percent of the species on Hawaii’s reefs are endemic, found nowhere else in the world. We read a lot about the impacts of climate change on everything from drought to sea-level rise, but one of the most immediate impacts is happening right under our noses. As carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, about one-third is absorbed into the world’s oceans. This CO2 reacts with sea water to form carbonic acid. As the name suggests, this reaction causes the ocean to become more acidic. The ocean is now 30 percent more acidic than it was before the industrial revolution. This is the single biggest change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years – a startling 525 billion tons of CO2 have already been absorbed into the world’s oceans and about 22 million tons are added every single day. This massive chemistry experiment is wreaking havoc on the world’s coral reefs. Corals, shellfish and many small creatures rely on calcium carbonate to build their skeletons or shells. But as seawater becomes more acidic, less calcium carbonate is available for corals to build the structures in which they live. No one wants to imagine a world without coral reefs and the thousands of creatures that live within coral ecosystems. But if action is not taken very quickly, we could lose a majority of the world’s magnificent coral reefs in the next 30 years. Clearly, we need to take swift action to help save these precious organisms. Luckily, the same things we are doing to help reduce greenhouse gas pollution will help coral. These include driving less and bicycling more, using more efficient Energy Star appliances, and recycling and composting instead of sending waste to the landfill. We can also reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticides in our yards, since runoff with those chemicals add to acidification and worsen the problem along our coastlines. These actions may seem small, but cumulatively, they can make a big difference in cutting coral killing pollution. There are some encouraging trendlines. For instance, in 2012, carbon pollution from the U.S. energy sector fell to the lowest level in two decades even as the economy continued to grow. To build on this progress, the Obama Administration is putting in place tough new rules to cut carbon pollution—just like we have for other toxins like mercury and arsenic. In June of this year, EPA proposed regulations to reduce CO2 emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing coal power plants, the largest source of CO2 emissions in the US. But we need to do more and that’s why federal agencies are met with states, territories and community groups in Maui last week to push for action to save coral reefs. Hawaii is blessed with diverse, beautiful and abundant coral. Working together we can help keep it that way. ————————————————————————————————————————————- [published September 10, 2014 as an op-ed in the Honolulu Star Advertiser] All photos by Jared Blumenfeld

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