Coral reefs are dying and it could mean economic catastrophe, experts say

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Masks are off, flights are booked and for many, a much-needed vacation is fast approaching for many. As pandemic-weary Americans flock to tropical destinations around the world, the next potential catastrophe is just around the corner — the extinction of undersea coral.

“This will be a major disaster just in terms of the world’s economy,” says coral researcher Dr. Misha Matz with the University of Texas. “Many economies (that rely on coral) will collapse. Like Hawaii.”

That’s a pretty bleak outlook. What exactly is happening, and why is it so bad for you? Let’s dive in.

What exactly are undersea coral?

Matz describes coral as sort of like sea anemone, those fuzzy underwater creatures that look almost like plants. Each coral is made of tiny sea anemone like cells that are clones of each other.

“They form a sheet of sea anemones, a carpet of sea anemones,” Dr. Matz says. “Now imagine this carpet can secrete limestone underneath and kind of grow up. Sometimes they grow into bizarre shapes. That’s what coral is.”

On the outside of the coral is a symbiotic algae that lives on the coral. The coral feeds on this algae. Thousands of different of species of undersea creatures besides the algae live amongst coral. It is an essential part of the ocean’s ecosystem.

Why are coral dying?

Our actions and climate change are eliminating this species in a few key ways. First, that algae, stressed by turbulent weather, is abandoning the coral. This process, called bleaching, turns entire reefs bone white.

A man rests his hand on a dead reef as he snorkels in Oahu’s Hanauma Bay on Wednesday, May 6, 2016 near Honolulu. Much of the inner reef at Hanauma Bay is dead after decades of tourist interaction, but the outer reef is still relatively healthy. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

“The coral is left without its food source,” Matz says. “The coral will die. Sometimes you’ll have die-offs on the scale of whole reefs.”

Second, the weather is intensifying because of climate change.

“Storms destroy reefs really easily, they can bulldoze the whole island,” Matz said.

Third, chemical imbalance in the ocean is allowing disease to run rampant. Matz says that reefs in parts of the Caribbean have lost the ability to reproduce as a result of diseases. These reefs have been dying off since the mid-70s.

Finally, coral is only able to survive near the ocean’s surface, within 10 meters of sea level, according to Matz.

“If the coral isn’t able to cope with the sea level rising, they will simply sink,” Matz said. “This should be especially terrifying for pacific islanders. The majority of islands in the pacific are old volcanoes that are held up by coral reefs. If the coral sinks, the islands will follow into the watery depths.

Is there any hope for undersea coral?

The short answer is yes. Coral can recover from bleaching and some coral species are showing signs that they may adapt to extreme weather through a type of hybridization.

By taking steps to slow or stop climate change, we could save coral. Doctor Matz estimates we have about 50 years to do so.

“We still have time. It’s not like, ‘OK it’s gone. coral reefs are dead.’ No. No. We have just enough time to do something,” Matz said.

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