United Nations: The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says it supports a plan to use satellite imaging to build up a picture of coral reefs in the Caribbean and other places to understand better how to protect them from warming seas brought on by climate change.
UNEP said coral reefs are “crucial to the ocean’s biodiversity,” adding that they foster around a quarter of all marine species and provide food and livelihoods for at least a billion people around the world.
However, UNEP lamented that pollution, overfishing, and ocean warming are “putting their very existence at risk, and it is hoped that, by comprehensively mapping the endangered organisms, future harm can be mitigated.”
To better understand the mysteries of the world’s oceans, UNEP said a team of scientists uses satellite imaging to map out, in unprecedented detail, one of the planet’s most iconic underwater ecosystems: the shallow coral reef.
The researchers are part of the Allen Coral Atlas project, which Vulcan led, a philanthropic organization created by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
UNEP said it is working with Vulcan to build capacities of coral reef practitioners, managers, and policy-makers worldwide, especially in developing countries, such as those in the Caribbean, on how to use the new Atlas.
“The atlas is meant to improve our understanding of our coral reef systems and drive better evidence-based policies to protect corals,” said Chuck Cooper, managing director of Government and Community Relations at Vulcan.
UNEP said scientists are aiming to monitor, in real-time, these biodiverse underwater worlds to protect and restore them.
“Further, they want to identify patches of coral that are naturally more resistant to climate change,” it said, adding that these “’ refugia’ may hold secrets to learning how to mitigate the impact of warming season coral reefs.”
UNEP said the atlas, available to the public, uses satellite technology to create high-resolution images of corals that are then processed into detailed maps.
“The maps capture features that will allow scientists and the conservation community to compare coral reef health over time and understand the pressures reefs are facing,” it said. “The atlas will provide baselines for monitoring coral reef bleaching events and other short-term changes, evidence to inform policymaking, and compelling science to capture the public’s interest in the plight of corals.”
Leticia Carvalho, the coordinator of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater Branch, said that “in the face of inaction, coral reefs will soon disappear.
“Humanity must act with evidence-based urgency towards effective ecosystem management and protection to change the trajectory,” she said.
UNEP said the atlas coincides with the launch of two major environmental campaigns: the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development and the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
Notable coral reefs that have been mapped include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and systems in Fiji, the Bahamas, and Hawaii.
UNEP said the project aims to have 100 percent of the world’s reefs mapped by the summer of 2021.
Late last month, UNEP warned that the Caribbean, among other places, could lose its coral reefs by the end of the century unless there are drastic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Their loss would have devastating consequences not only for marine life but also for over a billion people globally who benefit directly or indirectly from them,” UNEP said. “When water temperatures rise, corals expel the vibrant microscopic algae living in their tissues.”
UNEP said this phenomenon is called coral bleaching.
It said though bleached corals are still alive, they and can recover their algae if conditions improve.
“However, the loss puts them under increased stressed, and if the bleaching persists, the corals die,” UNEP warned.
It said the last global bleaching event started in 2014 and extended well into 2017.
UNEP said it spread across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans and was “the longest, most pervasive and destructive coral bleaching incident ever recorded.”
UNEP’s report Projections of Future Coral Bleaching Conditions outlines the links between coral bleaching and climate change.
It postulates two possible scenarios: a “worst-case scenario” of the world economy heavily driven by fossil fuels; and a “middle-of-the-road” wherein Caribbean and other countries exceed their current pledges to limit carbon emissions by 50 percent.
Under the fossil-fuel-heavy scenario, the report estimates that every one of the world’s reefs will bleach by the end of the century, with annual severe bleaching occurring on average by 2034, nine years ahead of predictions published three years ago.
“This would mark the point of no return for reefs, compromising their ability to supply a range of ecosystem services, including food, coastal protection, medicines, and recreation opportunities,” the report warns.
Should countries achieve the “middle-of-the-road” scenario, severe bleaching could be delayed by eleven years to 2045, UNEP said.
The report’s lead author, Ruben van Hooidonk, a coral researcher with America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said, “the sad part is that the projections are even drier than before.
“It means we really need to try to reduce our carbon emissions to save these reefs,” he said. “This report shows that we need to do it even more urgently and take more action because it’s even worse than we thought.”
According to UNEP, while it is not known exactly how corals acclimate to changing temperatures, the report examines the possibility of these adaptations assuming between 0.25 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of warming.
It found that every quarter degree of adaption leads to a possible seven-year delay in projected annual bleaching.
That means corals could receive a 30-year reprieve from severe bleaching if they can adapt to 1 degree Celsius of warming, the report says.
“However, if humanity keeps up with its current greenhouse-gas emissions, corals won’t survive even with 2 degrees Celsius of adaptation,” it warns.