photo courtesy of National Geographic

photo courtesy of National Geographic

Record cold winters don’t put an end to Global warming threats for coral reefs

By: Ashley Gustafson


It’s that time of year again when winters furry puts the majority of our country in a seasonal slump. Being a Chicago native myself, and living through “Chi-Beria” I understand the certain mood that falls upon people during the winter months. One of the most common utterances brought on by the cold that I also must admit to saying is, “So much for global warming…” While it may seem completely justified on a below freezing February morning to say this, it is also completely and utterly false. It is sometimes hard to reconcile the idea of global warming when it is negative twelve outside, but science suggests global warming is just as relevant now as it’s ever been.

Now many people have the misconstrued notion that global warming paints a world of endless heat, void of winter but this is not the case. Global warming is the general increase in global temperature throughout time. Now many of you probably don’t understand how this could be happening when there have been record-breaking winters over the last decade. While this may be true, global warming is an average and these record-breaking winters are not enough to drop the raise in annual worldwide temperature as a whole.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data center and the year-end summary published by NASA’s earth observatory, every year since 1976 has been above-average in temperature.  Now of course there may be areas where the average temerature is close to the previous year, and there are some cases when it is cooler however the majority and trend is warmer temperatures.  It is important to remember that the frigid cold spells that happen in the winter don’t disprove global warming any more that the rising summer temperatures prove its existence. Just because global warming presumably exists doesn’t mean winter is abolished forever.  In addition to cold winters, in the last few years in many areas of the United States, we have seen an increase in snow fall and snow storms.  Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is possible that heavy snowstorms could be a result of global warming as the planet warms. Like I previously stated, global warming won’t end cold winters anytime in the near future but the planet on average will still get warmer. Therefore a warmer planet will allow the air to hold more moisture on average.  Thus, more moisture, more possibility for intense winter storms like rain, sleet, and snow. This isn’t just true for winter severe weather. It is for the same reason tropical storms, and hurricanes will also become more intense.

Now, global warming may seem irrelevant during chilly January nights, and you might even be tempted to put it on the backburner or even flat out discredit it as irrelevant. Despite whether you believe it or not, the raising temperatures of the world’s oceans due to the effects of global warming are causing major, devastating changes to all of the oceans organisms.  One of the largest hits has been on the natural coral reefs around the world. These colorful, underwater forests are not only incredibly beautiful and fascinating in their own right, but they are also the home and core to many delicate ecosystems.  They provide food and shelter for numerous plants and animals throughout the world’s oceans, and without them many of these ecosystems would collapse.

But how is global warming causing this?

As I previously stated, global temperature increases are also increasing the annual temperature of the world’s oceans. This in turn is increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the water which strips and damages the coral leaving them defenseless. It is often overlooked that corals are living organisms because of their stationary, rock-like nature. Coral reefs are formed when the polyps (the living portion of the coral) extract calcium and carbon dioxide from the seawater to construct delicate, elaborate skeletons of limestone.  Higher sea temperatures and rising carbon dioxide levels are causing “bleaching” events. Bleaching occurs when corals respond to a raise in water temperature. This causes the coral to expel the algae, called zooxanthellae, which reside within them. Zooxanthellae provide nutrients for the coral and are also what give coral their vibrant appearance, thus when they leave them, the coral appears colorless or “bleached.” When this happens very few corals are able to survive and the majority dies, virtually taking the whole ecosystem they once supported with them.

Why should I care about coral reefs?

In case their beauty wasn’t enough of a reason, coral reefs are critical ecosystems that support thousands of marine organisms around the word. Without them, many species would be homeless and die off eventually becoming extinct. Also, these reefs support recreational and tourist based economies like Hawaii, the Florida Keys,  the Bahamas, and the Philippines just to name a few. For example, the tourism industry in the Florida Keys’ turns over $1.6 billion in profit annually just in scuba and snorkeling experiences alone.  Coral reefs are also valuable in commercial fishing as they provide homes and shelter for a variety of species sought after by fisherman. Also, coral reefs form a breakwater for adjacent coasts thus providing a natural barrier and protection from storm surges for shoreline communities.

What can I do?

Luckily when it comes to minimizing the effects of global warming and saving one of the world’s most beautiful, natural wonders you can make a difference:

  • Reduce pollution; recycle! Be responsible with your trash and use sustainable sources when possible
  • Conserve energy; use efficient electricity and appliances
  • Carpool whenever possible to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases
  • Get involved! Search the web, find a local organization or club and spread the word.


Ashley GustafsonAshley Gustafson

Ashley is a recent college graduate from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biological Sciences with concentrations in ecology and genetics. She loves all animals and aquatic life, and wants to pursue a career that incorporates the two. In her free time, she enjoys writing, traveling, and the outdoors. Recently Scuba certified just last March, she is excited to travel and go on more dives not only as a hobby but hopefully as part of a career too!

References and sources: