The Great Coral Reef disaster

US admits for first time that global warming is killing reefs - and will now be legally obliged to protect them

A A A

The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has this month ruled that two species of coral - elkhorn and staghorn - must officially be registered as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, partly because they are imperilled by rising sea temperatures. They are the first species ever to be listed as a result of global warming.

The two corals are the main reef-building species in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Florida, but they have declined by 80 to 98 per cent throughout the region. The NMFS - part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - concluded that "elevation of the sea surface temperature" was partly to blame. The ruling accepts that the corals die when the sea temperature exceeds 29C, because a curious relationship between tiny algae and the coral breaks down.

Corals are really colonies of billions of tiny animals called polyps. They lay down limestone skeletons that build the reef. But the tiny reef-builders in turn depend on algae called zooxanthellae. Not only do they give coral its colour, they harness the power of the sun through photosynthesis to feed the polyps.

More than a million of the algae throng each square centimetre of coral. But when the sea temperature rises, the polyps expel them into their stomachs, and then spit them out through their mouths. The coral becomes transparent, and eventually dies. This white death - virtually unknown 25 years ago - is now happening increasingly around the world as global warming takes hold.

But under the Endangered Species Act, the US government is legally bound to take measures to diminish the threat, by cutting back the pollution that causes climate change. And environmental groups are preparing to take it to court if it continues to refuse to do so.

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
tv

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
John Moore inspired this Coca Cola Christmas advert
people

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Jamie Oliver’s version of Jollof rice led thousands of people to post angry comments on his website
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film

Review: Mike Leigh's biopic is a rambling, rich character study

Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment
Shelley Duvall stars in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
film
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Secondary Teacher Great Yarmouth

£115 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are currently work...

Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

Special Needs Learning Support Assistant

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

PMLD Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leiceste...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes