Is There a Future for Coral Reefs?

College of Science and Mathematics

In 1979, as an undergraduate biology major, I participated in a class trip to learn about the amazing natural history of the Florida Keys. While there we snorkeled on an astonishingly beautiful reef built by huge expanses of branching elkhorn and staghorn coral. The complex structure provided by the coral branches created tunnels teaming with life ranging from multicolored fish to spiny black sea urchins. While this image of a coral reef was cemented in my brain, little did I know I would never again see a Caribbean reef like that.

I began studying Caribbean coral reefs while a graduate student in the early 1980s. By that time many of the structurally important corals that I observed in 1979, were being infected and killed by something called White Band Disease. This disease is dispersed by water currents and does enough damage on its own, but White Band Disease is not the only stress that corals have endured over the last 40-50 years. Deforestation, overfishing, pollution, and steadily increasing seawater temperatures are just a few of the many ways humans have, and are, negatively impacting corals.

Unfortunately, the future for coral reefs looks bleak. A recent presentation at the Ocean Sciences Meeting in February 2020 indicated that 70-90% of coral reefs around the world will be gone within 20 years and virtually none will be left by 2100. The main culprit for this decline? Rising seawater temperatures that are a result of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. The evidence for this link is indisputable.

If coral reefs disappear, the implications will be far-reaching. Not only will we lose one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, but gone will be the vast services they provide, such as storm protection, water filtration, food, jobs and recreation. Nearly one-eighth of the world population lives within 60 miles of coral reefs, benefits from them, and stands to lose if reefs continue to decline. If we are to save coral reefs for future generations we must act now, and the best action we can take is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. We owe it to the reefs and we owe it to humanity.

— Daniel Gleason, Ph.D., Director of James H. Oliver Jr. Institute for Coastal Plain Science