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Global Coral Bleaching Another Sign of Global Warming

Frances Beinecke

Posted September 23, 2010

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A front page story in the New York Times this week provided another stark reminder that global warming is already changing our world. In addition to the record heat waves, deadly floods, and dangerous wildfires of this summer, we must now add another indicator of climate disruption: widespread coral bleaching.

Scientists have found that this year’s intense heat is endangering tropical coral reefs—diminishing the ocean’s ability to produce food and threatening the economic vitality of tropical coastal regions worldwide.

Most of us think of coral reefs as brightly colored treasures of marine life.


But now, rising ocean water temperature, resulting primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, is causing reefs to weaken, lose their color, and likely have large-scale die-offs.


This would be only the second global die-off in history. The heat waves of 1998 resulted in the death of 16 percent of the world's coral reefs; a full recovery has not occurred.

One of the photos featured in the New York Times article showed coral in the Flower Garden Banks along the Texas-Louisiana border. I first learned about that vibrant and beautiful area in the late 1970s, when marine scientist Elliot Norse contacted NRDC about his campaign to protect the Flower Garden Banks. Thanks to his and others’ efforts, the area was designated as a marine sanctuary—the equivalent of a national park in the water. Yet even that designation can’t protect its stunning coral for the impacts of global climate change.

As dire as the coral bleaching predictions sound, they are only part of the story. Coral reefs also suffer the threat of ocean acidification, a second consequence of rising carbon dioxide emissions. ACID TEST, a film produced by NRDC and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, vividly illustrates this emerging crisis. (You can watch the film here.)

As the film explains, approximately one quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the oceans. Since carbon dioxide becomes an acid in water, the seas are becoming more acidic.  If we continue to pollute, as we are now, the oceans will become corrosive to corals by mid-century.  By then, chemical and physical erosion will exceed coral growth.

One of the scientists featured in ACID TEST believes we could be facing the loss of most coral reefs in the next 50 years. Such a loss would deliver a major blow to fishing and diving industries, never mind the marine life that depends on reefs for sustenance.

Scientist’s warnings are clear. If we do not act now by reducing our carbon emissions, tropical corals may well be one of the first large-scale casualties of our addiction to oil. 

Changes are happening all around us. It’s time for our political leaders—at home and abroad—to feel the urgency that is staring them in the face and start shifting to cleaner energy.


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Jim Bullis, Miastrada CompanySep 27 2010 01:33 PM

It seems that one might pause to notice that coral has been having a rough time of it for many years, and attributing the problem to warming has not always been the most likely conclusion. One also might be cautious in attributing coral decline to the slightly less alkalinity of the ocean, yes it can be defined technically as acidification since the pH shifts in that direction, I think the conclusion from scientists was only that there might be some weakening of the coral structure.

Warming is a peculiar villain to blame for decline of coral since coral almost exclusively exists in the warmer parts of the ocean. We used to hear that it was chemicals of various sorts, such as those used in detergents.

So it goes when it comes to popularizing scientific notions, especially when zeal leads to fabrication of 'scientific' certainty.

However, there are indications that global warming is real in the ice volume and sea level rise due to ocean heat content increasing. No, increasing ocean heat content does not mean atmospheric warming in significant degree, so one might go slow in pointing to every variation in climate as proof of global warming. But still, there is a real issue to be faced with the high rate of CO2 emissions that fuel our developed world.

To solve the problem, there are those who conclude that our last chance is 'fee and dividend' and this is of course a straightforward path to reducing CO2. Others, such as our EPA, and DOE it seems, would have us force electric power producers to compress gas coming from power plants and forcing it down holes into underground caverns of some sort, and the technical feasibility of this has been declared, though at a price that would make the cost to the power producer of using coal increase by a factor of ten.

I imagine that you are aware of significant resistance to these, and that they seem not to have gained sufficient support to make anything happen, except I might suggest, a failure of economic expansion that is also something of a concern.

Having concluded myself that these approaches are problematic, falling into the category of 'make the bad guys suffer' solutions, and that I differ about who the bad guys are, or if anyone among us is such, I look for better ways. Such better ways need to avoid punishment, neither of the industrial world that procuces and uses energy, nor of the public that has come to value the life styles derived from cheap energy.

My first approach has involved finding ways to carry on the chosen life style functions in ways that use less energy without diminishing basic effectiveness. But it seems there might also be a way forward where government takes a role in establishing the 'carbon capture' system, doing this initially at public expense but evolving into a self supporting and payback mode. As an initially public funced project it would provide large employment of a constructive nature.

I speak of the possibility of a national project to establish standing forests on a continental basis, meaning North America as the immediate example. Public land in the West should be sufficient, but water to accomplish this would be the main new ingredient; and it appears that there is sufficient water in the Northern areas to accomplish the entire needed forestation. Though not excluding of such, this project would not focus on agricultural production using newly to be tapped water sources would not be for the purpose of that production; rather, the goal would be to establish standing forests and otherwise permanent wood mass. Creation of permanent forest mass will capture the CO2 from using coal in electric power production on a roughly ton for ton basis. This means of course a massive scale project. But this would be a constructive course of action to enable continuation of the industrial revolution by which we have come to think of ourselves as a developed world society.

As in solving any problem, important choices are necessary, involving rethinking of environmental priorities. For those who believe that we must at this time act effectively, the choices seem clear, though we must act with reasonable care for the status quo ecosystems involved.

NRDC could be of great service in helping guide planning of such a project.

President Hu of China has stated that they are working to establish large 'forest mass' along lines similar to what I am suggesting. Maybe we could think about it.

Jim Bullis, Miastrada CompanySep 27 2010 02:19 PM

I recommend the discussion at the Economist magazine at:

This is of course a self supporting recommendation, since there are several comments by me.

I try to maket the discussion useful. I find that the Economist commenters are capable of substantial thought, with less zealotry overpowering real thinking.

Comments are closed for this post.


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