A World Without Coral Reefs

Great news for jellyfish!

It's past time to tell the truth about the state of the world's coral reefs, the nurseries of tropical coastal fish stocks. They have become zombie ecosystems, neither dead nor truly alive in any functional sense, and on a trajectory to collapse within a human generation. There will be remnants here and there, but the global coral reef ecosystem -- with its storehouse of biodiversity and fisheries supporting millions of the world's poor -- will cease to be. [...]

But by persisting in the false belief that coral reefs have a future, we grossly misallocate the funds needed to cope with the fallout from their collapse. Money isn't spent to study what to do after the reefs are gone -- on what sort of ecosystems will replace coral reefs and what opportunities there will be to nudge these into providing people with food and other useful ecosystem products and services. Nor is money spent to preserve some of the genetic resources of coral reefs by transferring them into systems that are not coral reefs. And money isn't spent to make the economic structural adjustment that communities and industries that depend on coral reefs urgently need. We have focused too much on the state of the reefs rather than the rate of the processes killing them. [...]

What we will be left with is an algal-dominated hard ocean bottom, as the remains of the limestone reefs slowly break up, with lots of microbial life soaking up the sun's energy by photosynthesis, few fish but lots of jellyfish grazing on the microbes. It will be slimy and look a lot like the ecosystems of the Precambrian era, which ended more than 500 million years ago and well before fish evolved.

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22 Responses:

  1. Ian Young says:

    Jesus would save us if these homos stopped getting married, Smeesh!

  2. This seems to be a widespread problem within the environmental movement in general.

    There is a mindset of "Preserve at all costs!" even in cases when preservation efforts would amount to tilting at windmills. Serious efforts at contingency planning for the failure of preservation efforts are still something of a taboo.

  3. Chintchary says:

    It's something I like to challenge Physicists with: sure, pure research is good, but why is physics more urgent than marine biology?

    No good answers yet.

    • jwz says:

      You must be really fun at parties.

      • Sheilagh says:

        Granted, he's getting DOWN with Physicists, and I doubt that includes Neil dG Tyson....

    • Chris says:

      Seriously? Every method there is for studying and manipulating the ocean is either a direct result or interesting byproduct of basic physics research. You want to be stuck at this technological level forever, or do you want to someday actually have the tools to do something about the ocean without bankrupting a moderately-sized country?

      Plus inefficient diminishing returns from having hordes of people in one branch of science etc. etc. In summary: fuck you.

      • Chintchary says:

        Maybe I had better clarify my starting assumptions:
        1. Physics is better-funded than marine biology. I'm so arrogantly sure this is true, I haven't looked for numbers.
        2. Blue sky research doesn't bring any technology directly in the short term.
        3. Technology comes from engineers, not from scientists. Engineers working on research projects is where science spinoffs come from.

        And to clarify, I am not proposing stopping all funding to blue-sky physics research. For the sake of argument, let's assume marine biology and physics just swap budgets.

        • Chris says:

          In terms of the argument, you're comparing a small section of biology to the whole endeavor of physics (that doesn't produce results that you claim are sufficiently practical within an arbitrary timeline etc.). Of course physics is better funded under those terms, though I'd wager that "all of biology" is better-funded than "all of physics"; by an order of magnitude or better if you unfairly lump healthcare in there.

          The assertion that only Engineers bring products to market is false. A ready example is the group currently bringing portable MRI to market in the research centre down the road from me. Nevertheless, it's easy to say "physics isn't valuable" when you've decide that long-term benefit must be disregarded. I'm not surprised no one has been able to win your rigged game.

          • Chintchary says:

            My challenge is to justify funding of pure physics research over pure marine biology. I claim this is difficult because marine biology is more urgent. Marine ecosystems are collapsing, but neutralinos aren't going anywhere. Yes, I'm comparing a subset of biology with all of physics. You can even throw all of astronomy in with the physics, and I don't think it will get much easier.

            • Chris says:

              Your line of question in purely asinine then, since you've already decided that marine biology's importance trumps that of physics and even the medium term (the time from basic research to commercial product) is irrelevant. Given the scenario you've set for yourself, how can you justify spending any money on physics at all until all the more urgent problems have been solved? Or cancer treatment (average savings of a few years of life at a tremendous cost, absolutely no long-term benefit) for that matter.

              There isn't a "rolleyes" emoticon in existence big enough for this nonsense.

      • Richard says:

        Every method there is for studying and manipulating the ocean is either a direct result or interesting byproduct of basic physics research.

        Hey, I through that way was when I was 15 also. "Stamp collecting"!

        Herman Hesse is the greatest author in the history of mankind, right? (Tolkien is for 13 year olds!)

        Enjoy your ecosystem.

    • NotTheBuddha says:

      Physics doesn't have to be more urgent than marine biology to be worth doing. Comparative advantage and economies of scale allow more overall progress to be made pursuing diverse opportunities in each area; for instance, Stephen Hawking wouldn't even make good bait.

      I'm also going to say that while physics research has the potential to discover new tools for investigating the largely opaque matter of the oceans, I think it is unlikely that studies of marine organisms will reveal any new physical principles.

  4. Boldra says:

    I'm taking my kids to see the Great Barrier Reef next month, before it's gone. I like to offset the impacts of flying - maybe if someone can recommend a charity working on post-coral ideas, I'd support them.

  5. Hadlock says:

    NPR had an interesting article to roughly the same effect (I can't help but wonder if this piece was inspired by theirs). The article said, in short, that reefs have a long history of dying off, and then later reestablishing themselves over periods of tens of thousands of years, and this is supported again and again by multiple core samples of multiple reefs.

    My friend had a 10 gallon saltwater reef aquarium; it's impressive how fast you can get a mostly lifeless chunk of limestone to spring to life and establish a somewhat closed ecosystem. After watching him establish his reef with little or no outside help, I've become less worried about claims of reefs being "destroyed forever". Coral seems pretty capable of reestablishing itself when the opportunity presents itself.

    NPR article in question: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/06/156289552/dead-reefs-can-come-back-to-life-study-says

    • Sounds like forward thinking fish farmers are going to be looking into how to artificially create coral reefs.

    • Richard says:

      Oh. So it's all OK then. Great. So just keep driving, keep flying, keep consuming. Nothing to see here. Continue as you were before. "Global oceanic acidification" is a such downer, let's go shopping!

      • Hadlock says:

        Hey, I do my part, I fertilize my lawn with used motor oil instead of dumping it in the stream behind the house like most of my neighbors do.

      • Rick C says:

        Or, we could spend trillions of dollars to save the world. After all, nobody _needs_ electricity or to ever travel more than a mile from their subsistence farm.

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