The world has lost roughly half its coral reefs in the last 30 years. Scientists are now scrambling to ensure that at least a fraction of these unique ecosystems survives beyond the next three decades. The health of the planet depends on it: Coral reefs support a quarter of all marine species, as well as half a billion people around the world.
Even if the world could halt global warming now, scientists still expect that more than 90 percent of corals will die by 2050. Without drastic intervention, we risk losing them all.
“To lose coral reefs is to fundamentally undermine the health of a very large proportion of the human race,” said Ruth Gates, director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). “We’ve lost 50 per cent of the reefs, but that means we still have 50 per cent left,” said Gates, who is working in Hawaii to breed corals that can better withstand increasing temperatures. “We definitely don’t want to get to the point where we don’t intervene until we have 2 per cent left.”
Coral reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe. Often described as underwater rainforests, they populate a tiny fraction of the ocean but provide habitats for one in four marine species. Reefs also form crucial barriers that protect coastlines from the full force of storms. They provide billions of dollars in revenue from tourism, fishing and other commerce, and are used in medical research for cures to diseases including cancer, arthritis and bacterial or viral infections.