In 1997, coral reefs around the world suffered massive bleaching due to one of the biggest El Nino warming events ever recorded. However, a new study that was released in Scientific Reports focusing on a series of coral reefs in the Chagos Archipelago located in the Indian Ocean has shown a substantial recovery in coral reef growth. In a time where climate change is yielding devastating results for fragile ecosystems, this study offers hope for the future of coral reefs.
After a major rise in sea temperature levels, the Chagos Archipelago saw the destruction of 90 percent of its reefs in the years 1997 and 1998. The study focuses on a total of 28 of those reefs. The results? After twenty years, it is reported that the overall health of the reefs is at its peak and has indeed bounced back from the brink. But one important factor to consider is that the Chagos Archipelago is largely devoid of human activity. This goes to show that, with proper care and management, fragile coral reef systems can recover from natural disturbances along with a lack of human involvement. David Kline, an associate project specialist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and who was not involved in the study, says, “It is encouraging to know that there are reefs that can have these rates of growth.”
Coral reefs are living, breathing communities made up of fish, corals, algae and other kinds of animals that feed and hide in coral structures. The primary building unit of corals is calcium carbonate; a strong mineral that protects the delicate and soft tissue of the tiny, coral animals. The carbonate budget, a measurement of the calcium carbonate found in a reef, was reported positive within the study. The carbonate budget helps to quantify the overall health of a reef in a given area. After the 1997 El Nino, an estimated sixteen percent of the world’s reefs, including the reefs in the Chagos Archipelago, were destroyed due to coral bleaching.
Chris Perry, a professor of geography at the University of Exeter and participant in the Chagos study, comments that all of the recovered reefs have a strong and healthy fish population. Fish feed off of seaweed and algae where the coral live; helping to maintain a staple the corals need to survive and thrive. In addition, he has observed that the Chagos Archipelago has been saved from the devastating effects of overfishing and chemical runoff that damaged Caribbean reefs have had to deal with.
All in all, the Chagos study reveals that, when left alone, fragile and intricate ecosystems can bounce back from the chaos of climate catastrophe. This goes to show that there is still hope for coral reefs in the race against climate change. But just like coral, this hope is fragile and delicate. “The fate of coral reefs is pretty dire, especially with climate change and what might happen if we seriously don’t act,” says Kline. There is still a high risk of bleaching from man-made climate change in the decades to come. Factors including gas emissions need to be carefully monitored and better management practices put into place in order to give coral reefs any chance at survival.
- Fragoso, Alejandro Davila. “Study Shows Coral Reefs Can Be ‘Incredibly Resilient’ to Warming Events”. Think Progress. Think Progress.org. 17th December, 2015. Web. Accessed 30th December, 2015.