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What Is Coral Bleaching

By Kaeley Sterkel

It is no secret that the ocean and our coastal ecosystems support life on earth and contribute to regulating major cycles that occur on earth. Without the structure of the ocean the environments around the world would feel the effect. One of the biggest providers from the ocean is the coral reefs. They act as a buffer from the effects of hurricanes as well as support millions of people through fishing industries and tourism. It is estimated that 4,000 different fish species and 25% of marine life depend on coral reefs. Unfortunately, the corals have been bleaching since the 1980s and in 2016 there was a massive spike to warmer waters and 1/3 of the great barrier reef was killed off.

What is Coral Bleaching?

In today’s world the ocean is under severe stress from all angles: pollution, temperature change, and acidity fluctuation. All these threats are causing bleaching to occur to coral. Out of all these stresses, water temperature change is the leading threat and expels the symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae) that gives the coral its different colors, this change in temperature can be as small as a 2 degrees difference. Without the protective environment that coral gives to the algae it is unable to have the compounds it needs to produce photosynthesis and cannot produce the oxygen that the coral needs and cannot remove waste. A common misconception that people assume is that once coral is bleached, it is dead. This thought is not true, but it does leave the coral more at risk of starvation and disease.

What are we doing to help?

If we look at the big picture, one thing we can all do to help protect our corals and help rehabilitate them is to decrease the amount of greenhouse gasses that we are putting into the atmosphere. Although this is something that should always be in the back of our mind some scientists say that is not enough and have come up with different ideas to help produce a more instant result. One option that scientists are creating is creating more marine protected areas to create a refuge where harmful man made effects are off limits making reefs healthier. Another action is being done of the coast of Florida, harvesting corals. In laboratories samples of harvested coral are being bred by hand and becoming attached to the reef. From this work, it is estimated that 70,000 corals from 5 different species have grown back from damaged reefs. Because of this breeding we can raise the tolerance for thermal threats making the new reefs more adaptable to the changing climate.

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