Coral Bleaching Threatens Reefs in 2010

Reader Contribution by Sean Rosner

While climate and energy bills were stalling in Congress this past summer, one of the world’s most beautiful ecosystems was suffering significant amounts of damage due to global climate change. Scientists from around the world have been predicting that data will show 2010 to be a bad year for coral reefs because of bleaching, a symptom of heat stress. 

Coral bleaching happens when elevated temperatures cause algae in the reefs — which provide food for the corals and give the reefs their breathtaking colors — to overmetabolize and create toxins. In defense, the corals shed the algae, leaving them vulnerable to disease and without a food source.

In 1998, record-high water temperatures caused about 15 percent of the world’s shallow-water coral reefs to die, and scientists fear that 2010 could be an even worse year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that the 10-month period from January to September 2010 matched 1998 as the hottest in recorded history.

Coral reefs near islands in the Central Pacific were hit hard earlier in the year, as were areas in Southeast Asia. Moving forward into the final portion of the year, scientists are particularly concerned about reefs in the southern Caribbean Sea. Water temperatures in the area have been above average all year.

Worldwide coral bleaching not only robs the reefs of their beauty, but also affects the high variety of marine life that dwells nearby. There are economic consequences as well, as area fishing and tourism industries depend on the reefs.