The role that coral reefs play in ecosystem
Coral reefs are often described as the tropical forests of the ocean. Along with enhancing the beauty of marine ecosystems, coral reefs are the basis for the formation of other organisms. Coral reefs act as colonies for hundreds of various organisms. Fishes and other sea creatures use coral reefs as shelter to raise their fry. The fishing industry mostly depends on coral reefs because many fish spawn there, and fishes spend time there before making their way to the open sea. From octopuses to dolphins, most marine organisms depend heavily on reefs for their basic food. Coral reefs absorb wave energy and contribute to the reduction of coastal erosion. Apart from this, they also maintain levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Coral reefs also absorb the intoxicated elements in the water, thus making water near coastal regions pure and filtered.
Along with benefiting the natural ecosystem, coral reefs contribute significantly to the economy. Local residents of the islands depend on reefs for food, protection, and employment. They attract divers, freed divers, recreational fishermen and lovers of white sandy beaches. For instance, more than 100 countries benefit from reef-related tourism.
As the name ‘barrier reef’ implies, coral reefs protect the shoreline from natural calamities such as tornadoes and tsunamis. The cascading effect of severe storms that can affect these islands' human civilization is also protected by the coral reef.
What keeps corals alive
Coral reefs are sensitive organisms that can survive only in specific conditions. If the conditions aren’t met - these organisms get diseased, wither away and eventually die. All corals have four basic needs to survive: food, quality of water, movement of water, and sunlight. For coral reefs to be alive, there has to be adequate sunlight which facilitates the process of photosynthesis. Coral reefs need clean water and a plethora of exposure to sunlight to produce their own food. However, intoxicated water, loaded with chemicals and waste nutrients can form a layer of unwanted algae which deviates the sunlight from entering the water. The coral reefs also require an ideal temperature to survive. The rising water temperatures because of global warming is responsible for 70% of damage to the coral reefs.
Herbivore animals such as sea turtles within the marine environment feed on algae, which helps control the spread of algae. If the population of algae is not controlled, the coral reefs will be overtaken easily, thus damaging the aesthetics and environmental benefits that coral reefs have to offer. Healthy wildlife is a necessity for coral reefs to be alive.
Minor changes in environmental conditions can have life-threatening impacts on the coral reefs. And hence it is the need of the hour to make the marine environment more habitable for the coral reefs.
Why coral reefs are dying
Coral reefs are colorful living organisms that form a crucial part of the marine ecosystem. However, the coral reefs have started to bleach and are facing massive ‘die-off’ because of the growing industrialization, environmental instability, and increasing carelessness.
Climate change is the greatest threat to coral reefs. At present, almost 50% of the coral reefs have withered away and the soft corals have started to decompose. Because of global warming, the temperature of oceans has started to rise, leading to mass coral bleaching and outbreaks of infectious diseases in the marine ecosystems. Emissions of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide have added to the already existing threats. The calcification rates in reef-building have already started to reduce drastically. The process of ocean acidification has caused serious threats to the otherwise rich and beautiful coral diversity.
Coral reefs are sensitive creatures that do not respond well to even the slightest change in their habitats. Human activities such as overfishing have irritated the coral reefs, and hence the question of their existence is only getting worse. Reefs occupy only 1% of the marine ecosystem, but they provide shelter to millions of other organisms. And these organisms will become extinct very soon if coral reefs continue to wither away.
What their death signifies
The most concerning aspect of dying coral reefs is what it suggests about the future of our planet. Corals have existed for more than 400 years now. However, the death of coral reefs signifies the overall and irreversible damage that has been done to our natural ecosystem.
Coral reefs are critical indicators of the health of global ecosystems. If climate change is not urgently addressed, they serve as early warning signs of what may happen to other less sensitive systems, such as river deltas and other marine biodiversity. Once the tipping point for coral reef survival is passed, the deterioration of different systems can cascade more rapidly and irreversibly.
Coral reefs provide us with food, building materials (limestone) and new medicines; more than half of the research for new anticancer drugs focuses on marine organisms. A lot of underdeveloped and developing countries such as Fiji and Indonesia depend on coral reefs for their economic needs. The unfortunate state of dying coral reefs indicates the upcoming threats to the social, economical and environmental future of this planet. The death of coral reefs is a clear indicator of how one damaged element in the ecosystem can affect the entire ecosystem chain and this will lead to a severe state of irreversible damage to human civilization.