Coral alert: destruction of reefs 'accelerating' with half destroyed over past 30 years

The eco-system has been around for tens of millions of years and we are wiping it out within a hundred, says IPCC scientist

Environment Editor

A A A

The rapid decline of the world's coral reefs appears to be accelerating, threatening to destroy huge swathes of marine life unless dramatic action is swiftly taken, a leading ocean scientist has warned.

Click on image above to enlarge graphic

About half of the world's coral reefs have already been destroyed over the past 30 years, as climate change warms the sea and rising carbon emissions make it more acidic.

But the trend now looks to be accelerating, said Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the scientist in charge of the ocean chapter of the forthcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Our oceans are in an unprecedented state of decline due to pollution, over-fishing and climate change. The state of the reefs is very poor and it is continuing to deteriorate," said Professor Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland.

"This is an eco-system that has been around for tens of millions of years and we are wiping it out within a hundred. It's quite incredible."

In addition to working on the IPCC report, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg is leading by far the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the world's coral reefs, the Catlin Seaview Survey (CSS). Its initial findings demonstrate that the reefs are getting "increasingly hammered" from all sides, he said.

"The coral reefs' decline seems to be accelerating rather than decelerating, but I would add the caviat that the ultimate evidence will come in about five years time," he added. That is because the CSS will be the first to provide a detailed worldwide picture of coral reefs, many of which have never been documented before. Only by comparing the result of this survey with the situation as it develops in the coming years can the true picture of the decline be known.

The CSS builds up a picture of the state of the world's coral reefs using a specially designed tablet-operated underwater camera that travels along sections of the reef collecting thousands of images using continuous high-resolution, 360-degree panoramic imagery.

The survey has just posted its results online so far - based on expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean and Bermuda - so that it can be used by policy makers and scientists around the world.

The decline of the world's coral reefs threatens to destroy huge swathes of marine life such as this Hawksbill sea turtle The decline of the world's coral reefs threatens to destroy huge swathes of marine life such as this Hawksbill sea turtle

Coral reefs - made from calcium carbonate secreted by tiny corals - are among the most biodiverse, or species-rich, habitats in the world. They support thousands of species, including tropical fish, whales, dolphins, turtles, birds, sea snakes and sea grass.

Because they are so rich in life, they are regarded as the "canary in the coal mine" for the ocean for the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, in the same way that levels of Arctic ice are seen as the best barometer on land.

"Coral reefs are incredibly important to hundreds of millions of people who really on fishing for their livelihoods and for tourism - and for coastal protection, because the waves crash down on the reefs several hundred metres from the shore, protecting the coast and the food it provides," Prof Hoegh-Guldberg said.

The UN estimates that coral reefs directly support the livelihoods of nearly 300 million people and have an "economic value" of up to £107bn in research that attempts to put a price tag on the "natural services" it provides, such as being a nursery for fish and protecting the coastline.

The chapter on Oceans that Prof Hoegh-Guldbert is overseeing, jointly with one other scientist, will appear in the second part of the forthcoming IPCC report, which will be published in March. The first part will be published on Friday.

Although the outlook for coral reefs is dire, he said the battle has not yet been lost. For some reason, many of the reefs in Bermuda "are looking fairly good", he said, and this could provide lessons for how to protect reefs more generally.

Furthermore, reefs can recover relatively quickly if the pressure on them decreases. A significant global switch to renewable energy - while far from likely - would give the reefs a new lease of life.

"By the middle of the century, global temperatures could stabilise and ocean acidification could reverse - it's actually doable," Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said.

"If we go in the direction we are now, we are lost with no chance of recovery. But if we listen to what the IPCC report tells us, and take that advice, and get on and form the partnerships to do it, we can turn the situation around. But if we wait another 10 years, we'll be too far gone."

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
techProbably not, this lamp is secretly live-tweeting conversations from a McDonalds
News
Ain't that a kick in the head: a still from Jared Frank's money-spinning video
mediaTrain Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video
Sport
The redeveloped Anfield will eventually hold 58,800 supporters
footballClub marking return to Champions League elite
Arts & Entertainment
musicPaul Weller says ‘greedy touts’ have wrecked vinyl promotion
Voices
peopleWhat better hero for Britain than Saint George?
Sport
Stephen Hendry has not played a ranking event for two seasons
Stephen Hendry poised for a sensational return to snooker
News
Fresh hope: Ruth Womak and her dog Jess
educationHow one housing association's remarkable initiative gave hope
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Private Client

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: WARWICKSHIRE - P...

Primary Supply Teachers - Join the best!

£95 - £130 per day + Excellent rates of pay, CPD: Randstad Education Southampt...

Foundation Teacher

£21804 - £31686 per annum + Excellent rates of pay, holiday pay : Randstad Edu...

History Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary History Teacher...

Day In a Page

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents
Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?