Our last chance to save the reefs

By Danielle Moloney 

Edited by Sofia Perez


Scientists from around the globe came together a few weeks ago to send a clear message to policymakers: we need to act now in order to save coral reefs from heading for disaster. In July, at the International Coral Reef Symposium, a paper was presented to outline the urgent need for actions that will address the deterioration of coral reefs. A group of experts on reefs and climate change acted as representatives for hundreds of worldwide scientists while they ​​developed this paper, which is by the International Coral Reef Society (ICRS). The paper culminates with three areas where policy can address the current reef crisis. 

What’s the rush?

Andréa Grottoli, an earth sciences professor at Ohio State University and the president of ICRS, noted at the event that only 30% of today’s reefs are projected to survive the next century, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. She points out that carbon emissions need to be dramatically reduced immediately in order to reach that target. Grottoli also warns that if we don’t act now, only a few percent of current reefs may survive. If targets are met and global warming slows down and even reverses, more surviving reefs can be used in the future to repair and restore damaged coral reefs. For example, pieces of healthy reefs can be removed from their structure and transplanted to an unhealthy reef, where they can instigate healthy new growth. Similarly, healthy reefs can be studied further to see exactly how they maintain survival under climate change conditions, in an effort to better understand how unhealthy corals may be better supported. 

Figure 1. An image showing the extent of climate change. The comparison shows how much warmer the planet was between 2011 and 2020 with respect to average temperatures between 1951-1980 (baseline). Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

The three major asks 

The ICRS paper makes three major requests of policymakers to address climate change, local conditions that impact reefs, and opportunity for reef restoration. Let’s take a closer look at what the three asks entail:

  1. Climate change: address biodiversity loss as well as the effect of climate change on reefs (such as bleaching, loss of diversity, and mass death events); make sure that policies are strong enough to address these major issues; ensure that the policies are actually enforced. 
  2. Local conditions: ensure a coordinated response throughout various levels of governance and policy fields (from local-scale to international-scale); make efforts to improve conservation, management, and restoration; plan for climate change adaptation and sustainable development (for example, building a new eco-friendly tourist resort in a location that showcases reefs without polluting or harming them). 
  3. Restoration: innovate new solutions to help reefs adapt to climate change; use current instances of resilience to better inform conservation/restoration efforts; include local community participation as part of reef management. 

In addition to these broad measures, the paper also asks that more specific afflictions that reefs face are not overlooked, but rather, addressed in concert with the three requests listed above. For example, overfishing is a more direct harm to reefs that can be improved while simultaneously continuing to work on large-scale threats to reefs, such as climate change. 

Figure 2. A figure from the new ICRS paper detailing the three pillars of coral reef restoration. The three pillars aim to address climate impacts as well as small-scale impacts that affect coral health, with the hope that science and policy coordinate to the best of their abilities in order to give corals the best chance possible at survival in the coming decades. Image courtesy of ICRS. 

The ICRS paper emphasizes the importance of time in the future of coral reefs, even going so far as to state that “there is no time to spare.” Unlike some other scientific writings with gloomy headlines about the future of global reefs, this paper has the bandwidth to break down just how a turnaround for the better may be possible. By outlining possible solutions and reiterating the need for governments at all levels to work together, the ICRS paper gives policymakers an important framework to inform their decisions to give corals the best chance possible. 


These calls to action come amid the last few weeks in which the media has been inundated with scientific alarm bells that indicate that our environment is hurtling towards disaster- and that it will be very difficult to stop at this point. While these findings are valid causes for concern, there is still hope yet that the trajectory of our environment’s future can be turned around. Scientists warn that the window of opportunity to save reefs will close relatively soon. However, if everyone works to do their part in helping address climate change and other threats facing reefs, that window can stay open so that future generations may enjoy the beauty and functionality of reefs for centuries to come. 

Read the ICRS paper in its entirety here

Please contact the author with any questions: dmoloney@fandm.edu

Cover Photo courtesy of Scientific American. 

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