From the Arctic to the Amazon, almost no part of the world has been left untouched by the human-caused warming of the Earth’s climate system. But one ecosystem seems to be disintegrating faster than almost anywhere else: coral reefs, the tropical rainforests of the undersea world.
A new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, quantifies this discipline-wide impression of a vast and fast-moving destruction. It brings together observations of 100 coral-reef sites around the world going back to 1980, and it finds that severe bleaching events are far more common now than they were 35 years ago.
“I do not like to say: Reefs will die. But we will not have reefs as we currently have them,” says Howard Lasker, a professor of ecology at the University at Buffalo, who was not connected to the study.
Lasker has spent three decades studying the biology of coral reefs. Specifically, he focuses on gorgonian corals: sea fans and sea plumes, “the stuff you see waving back and forth when you look at a TV special,” as he puts it. Through his career, he has witnessed an impoverishment of these natural treasures, and he predicts it will only continue.
“I personally believe that people will get in the water 20 years from now and they will go dive on things that people call ‘reefs,’” he told me. “And the reefs will still have some corals on them, still have lots of fishes on them, and they will still have gorgonian corals on them—and people will be impressed by them. But they will be dramatically, dramatically different than the reefs we have now, and certainly than the reefs that were present 30, 50, 100 years ago.”