Coral reefs: Is the handwriting on the wall?

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OCT. 30 — Some experts say pollutants and global warming may help kill off up to 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs over the next 25 years.

Nearly 200 private and government researchers from the Caribbean, Florida and the U.S. Pacific islands recently met in St. Thomas for a meeting of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, according to an Associated Press report. The major problem, the report states, is that as sea temperatures rise a reef’s resistance to increased pollutants, such as toxins from boat paint and runoff from construction sites, decreases.

“Think of it as a high school chemistry class,” says Billy Causey, a NOAA director, in the report. “You mix some chemicals together and nothing happens. You crank up the Bunsen burner and all of a sudden things start bubbling around. That’s what’s happening; that global Bunsen burner is cranking up.”

Nearly 50 percent of the coral in underwater study sites — some 31 acres around the U.S. Virgin Islands — died after sustained above-average sea temperatures last year, a scientist says in the news report. Unusually warm water reportedly can cause coral to lose its pigment and make it more vulnerable to disease.

Researchers say that global warming is only one potential cause of increased sea temperatures and isn’t the only condition that’s damaging coral reefs. Silt runoff from construction sites can prevent coral from getting enough sunlight, and green algae, which reportedly is increasing, competes with coral for sunlight.

— Jason Fell