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A Detailed and Dismal Picture of Coral Reefs

February 24, 2011

A new report brings the perilous state of the world’s coral reefs into sharper focus than ever. Extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, they are critical sources of food and income and also perform key environemtnal services that benefit the millions of people  inhabiting coastal areas. But these fragile ecosystems could quickly unravel unless concerted action is taken to address the many threats they face.

Titled Reefs at Risk Revisited, the study was carried out by the World Resources Institute in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, the WorldFish Center and numerous other partners. Its purpose is to gather the knowledge needed to guide conservation efforts.

Reefs at Risk Revisited provides a “high-resolution update” of an earlier analysis, using a global map that is 64 times more detailed than the original one. The new study also assesses for the first time the threat to coral reefs posed by climate change. It observes that the combination of warming seas (which prompt a “stress response” referred to as “coral bleaching”) and ocean acidification (a result of rising levels of carbon dioxide) greatly compounds local threats, such as overfishing and pollution.

In his foreword to the study, former US Vice President Al Gore says that coral reef degradation, “like the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’, . . . is a clear sign that our dangerous overreliance on fossil fuels is already changing Earth’s climate.” He refers to study findings as a “wake-up call for policymakers and citizens around the world.” Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for their effective efforts to raise public awareness about the threat of global climate change.

Reefs at Risk Revisited rates about 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs as under threat from the combination of local pressures and widespread damaged related to climate change. It also finds that local threats are greatest in Southeast Asia, where the overall threat level is 95 percent. In this region, Indonesia has the largest area of threatened reefs, followed by the Philippines. The study also concludes that global threat levels have increased dramatically – by 30 percent – in the decade since the original study was conducted.

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