When studying major global changes like warming, ocean acidification, or ocean oxygen loss, scientists often look back in the geological record to see what happened when Earth experienced similar conditions before. That helps scientists put global change in the proper perspective.
In past geological ages when volcanic activity has been high, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen and dramatically changed the Earth’s climate and ocean chemistry. Last week’s Science study focuses on one of these periods—the Permo-Triassic (P-T) boundary. It’s one of the most “rapid” releases of volcanic carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, taking 60,000 years. As slow as that seems, it’s fast for the Earth—60,000 years out of a 4.5 billion year old planet’s life is like half a day of a 100-year-old person’s life. All this volcanic carbon dioxide drove rapid ocean acidification towards the end of the P-T boundary, and a major extinction of ocean life followed. Marine life with calcified shells and skeletons, like corals, shellfish and calcifying algae, were pretty much wiped out.
Corals are in trouble, but they could soon receive the help they need.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) proposed listing 66 species of reef-building corals under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is a step in the right direction for coral conservation. Being added to the Endangered Species list is more than a title upgrade (or downgrade, really). Listing species as endangered would prohibit harming, wounding or killing the species. It also prohibits the extraction of listed species, which includes importing or exporting the corals.
What has made these corals candidates for the list? A number of things: pollution, warming waters, overfishing and ocean acidification threaten the survival of corals. These threats can make corals more susceptible to disease and mortality. Protections like endangered species listing are vital to preserving coral from threats and helping them cope with changing environmental conditions.
Corals are tremendously important economically and environmentally. Corals provide habitat to support fisheries that feed millions of people; create jobs and income for coastal economies through tourism, recreation and fisheries; and protect coastlines from storm damage. One independent study found that coral reefs provided about $483 million in annual net benefit to the U.S. economic from recreation and tourism activities. Marine life, such as fish, crustaceans and sea turtles rely on corals for food, shelter and nursery grounds. Over 25% of fish in the ocean and up to two million marine species use coral reefs as their home. Because of their significance, supporting NOAA’s proposed ESA listing for 66 coral species is incredibly important to their survival and our local economies.