A growing number of scientists are predicting a major El Nino weather event this year, which could wreak havoc across South America and Asia as droughts, floods and other extreme weather events hit industry and farming. However, the impacts on the world’s coral reefs could be even more disastrous.
The last big El Nino, from 1997 to 1998, caused the worst coral bleaching in recorded history. In total, 16 percent of the world’s coral was lost, and some countries, like the Maldives, lost up to 90 percent of their reef coverage. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology suggests there is a 70 percent chance of an El Nino occurring this year — and all the signs are that it will rival the 1998 event.
El Nino arises out of a confluence of factors that are still not fully understood, but its outcome is clear — parts of the ocean get hotter. A band of warm water develops in the western Pacific, while the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool — a blob of heat that spans much of Indonesia — starts oscillating wildly. This could spell disaster for the Coral Triangle, a southeast Asian bioregion that is the underwater equivalent of the Amazon rain forest, home to more marine species than anywhere else on Earth.
“In 1998, the Coral Triangle started to bleach in May and continued till September,” said Ove Hoeg Guldberg, a marine biologist and head of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. “The Coral Triangle sees prolonged periods of temperature anomaly during an El Nino because the equator passes through the middle of it, so it experiences both northern and southern hemisphere summers.”
Guldberg, who led the Oceans chapter of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change, is less than sanguine about the prospects for the region’s coral reefs.
“It only takes about half a degree on top of background sea temperatures to cause bleaching,” he said. “Atmospheric scientists are telling us we’re headed for temperatures that will trump those of 1998.”
Corals are animals that behave like plants. They are able to do this by maintaining a symbiotic relationship with dinoflagellates, a type of microbe that lives inside the coral’s tissue where it photosynthesizes, passing sugar to its host. However, when temperatures rise, the dinoflagellates stop making sugar and produce harmful free radicals instead. The corals then spit them out, stop producing their carbonate shell and steadily fade to white.
Coral bleaching is actually quite a common occurrence and bleached reefs can make comebacks — many of the reefs affected by the 1998 El Nino have made at least partial recoveries.
“The thing is, under mild conditions, corals can recover their symbiotes,” Guldberg said. “But because background temperatures are warmer, the corals can’t recover as before.”
Even when reefs do recover, old-growth corals that might have taken centuries to mature are often replaced with faster growing species that quickly colonize large areas, homogenizing the ecosystem.
Of course, the elephant in the room is global warming, and this is where things get scary.
Guldberg said current rates of ocean warming and acidification are unmatched in most if not all of the past 65 million years.
“This sends chills down the back of any biologist worth their salt, because life will have to struggle in circumstances that it’s just not evolved for,” Guldberg said.
It is not so much the fact that 10 or 20 percent of global reef coverage could be lost in the next year or so, but the reduced ability of these reefs to recover. This is death by a thousand cuts, an aggregation of impacts, from extreme weather events to invasive species to destructive fishing practices, with global warming reverberating across all of them.
A landmark 2007 study by John Bruno and Elizabeth Selig showed that the Coral Triangle had lost nearly 50 percent of its reefs since the 1980s. Beset by constantly rising temperatures, they simply cannot bounce back.
The Coral Triangle is particularly vulnerable because it is more prone to non-climate related pressures than other reefs. According to research organization World Resources Institute, more than 85 percent of reefs within the bioregion are threatened by local stressors (overfishing, destructive fishing and pollution), which is substantially higher than the global average of 60 percent.
About 120 million people depend directly on these reefs for their livelihood. As the coral dies, more of them will be forced to migrate to live.
“You’re looking at a situation where a once vibrant ecosystem that offered goods and services for humanity is heading toward extinction,” Guldberg said.
The broad scientific consensus is that corals worldwide could be on the verge of extinction by as early as 2050.
In the broader context of global warming, coral reefs are not necessarily the first ecosystems to go, but they are the most graphic. They can be seen as an early warning system — the proverbial canary in the coal mine — except that when corals start to expire, it tends to presage species annihilation on a scale scientists say has only been seen five times in the planet’s history. That is why the term “sixth extinction” is becoming part of the media lexicon.
The only meaningful solution in the long term is to drastically reduce carbon emissions worldwide. Not much can be done to mitigate the impact of an impending El Nino, but some of the other non-climate related stresses can be removed. This means establishing areas of undisturbed marine habitat — lots of them — and reducing pressure on fisheries.
Guldberg offered the metaphor of a chronically ill patient who needs radical treatment — “but they also need remedial care — blankets, water, food. That’s something immediate we can achieve.”
As for the radical treatment, it must happen very soon. If not, corals could soon become mere aquarium artifacts.
Johnny Langenheim is a contributor to The Coral Triangle Web site.
Ideas matter. They especially matter in world affairs. And in communist countries, it is communist ideas, not supreme leaders’ personality traits, that matter most. That is the reality in the People’s Republic of China. All Chinese communist leaders — from Mao Zedong (毛澤東) through Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), from Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) through to Xi Jinping (習近平) — have always held two key ideas to be sacred and self-evident: first, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is infallible, and second, that the Marxist-Leninist socialist system of governance is superior to every alternative. The ideological consistency by all CCP leaders,
In the past 30 years, globalization has given way to an international division of labor, with developing countries focusing on export manufacturing, while developed countries in Europe and the US concentrate on internationalizing service industries to drive economic growth. The competitive advantages of these countries can readily be seen in the global financial market. For example, Taiwan has attracted a lot of global interest with its technology industry. The US is the home of leading digital service companies, such as Meta Platforms (Facebook), Alphabet (Google) and Microsoft. The country holds a virtual oligopoly of the global market for consumer digital
The US on Friday hosted the second Global COVID-19 Summit, with at least 98 countries, including Taiwan, and regional alliances such as the G7, the G20, the African Union and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) attending. Washington is also leading a proposal to revise one of the most important documents in global health security — the International Health Regulations (IHR) — which are to be discussed during the 75th World Health Assembly (WHA) that starts on Sunday. These two actions highlight the US’ strategic move to dominate the global health agenda and return to the core of governance, with the WHA
Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) on Saturday expounded on her concept of replacing “unification” with China with “integration.” Lu does not she think the idea would be welcomed in its current form; rather, she wants to elicit discussion on a third way to break the current unification/independence impasse, especially given heightened concerns over China attacking Taiwan in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She has apparently formulated her ideas around the number “three.” First, she envisions cross-strait relations developing in three stages: having Beijing lay to rest the idea of unification of “one China” (一個中國); next replacing this with