In July 2017, Netflix released a haunting, soul-stirring documentary on coral bleaching, called Chasing Coral. With beauty to inspire and heartbreak to empower the activist in all of us, the documentary follows an international, collaborative effort to record and share irreftuable evidence supporting the serious effects of global climate change on our ocean's forests. It takes a temperature increase of 2°C in our oceans to kill our coral reefs, and this is happening at an alarming rate. Chasing Coral's campaign seeks to raise awareness and educate the public on how and why our coral reefs need protection.
29% of the Great Barrier Reef died in 2016, and now 67% of the whole reef is dead. It is greater in size than the UK, Holland and Switzerland combined. We are experiencing the third mass coral bleaching in 30 years, and we are running out of time to save entire ecosystems that more than a billion people depend on . . .
what is coral: Animal, mineral, plant?
Coral is all three! World-renowned coral reef biologist and Director at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Dr. Ruth Gates, gives a compelling definition of coral:
"A coral individual is really made up of thousands of small structures called polyps. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles and they can combine to be millions of them across a single animal. They have inside their tissues small plants; these micro-algae, a million/cm2. The plants that live inside them photosynthesise and the animals use that for their food. They essentially have food factories living inside of themselves. So, as the animal grows, what you see is the animal is growing over the skeleton (calcium carbonate) and depositing the skeleton underneath it. They photosynthesise during the day. At night, the plants really essentially sleep and the animal comes active. They expand their polyps, the tentacles come our and now anything that swims by is caught by these stinging cells that are on the tips of the tentacles . . . (Corals) are the foundation species that have all these other species that depend on them. They are the reason we have reefs: a consortium of organisms that cooperate together now manifest in this massive structure that can be seen from space."
coral bleaching:as alive as petrified forests
Dr. Gates goes on to say,
"it is a stress response, much like a fever in humans is a stress response. If the temperature spikes just a little bit above their normal range, corals will start to bleach. The small plants that live inside their tissues, their ability to photosynthesise and feed the animal host is impaired. The animal senses that 'I've got something inside of me that is not doing what it's expected to do'. . . they try to get rid of those plants that are no longer functional, and leave behind the transparent, naked tissue. They've lost the most important food source they have, so it's starting to starve"
why should we care about coral?
Coral reefs are important because they:
- Protect coastlines from the damaging effects of tsunamis, hurricanes and floods
- Are the source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients for marine food chains
- Assist in carbon and nitrogen fixing
- Help with nutrient recycling
- Support the fishing industry because reefs function as nurseries for young fish
- Generate more than 36 billion US dollars every year, and millions of jobs
- Provide clear, scientifically-testable records of climatic events over the past million years or so, which includes records of recent major storms and human impacts that are recorded by the changes in coral growth patterns
- Provide us with food for a billion people
what can we do?
Begin by educating yourself and watch Chasing Coral, now streaming on Netflix.
SPOILER: the documentary ends on a hopeful note by listing countries and American cities who are joining the fight against climate change. From Kazakstan to Fiji, 43 countries have pledged to be powered by clean energy. In America, 48 cities ranging from Boulder, CO to Hanover, NH have made the same promise. The UK is not included on this list. It's clear that we need top-down systemic reform to address climate change. It's insufficient to place all of the onus on the consumer. However, bottom-up, grassroots campaigns can be wonderfully effective in changing our behaviours, routines and shopping practices. We can only heal our planet together.
Chasing Coral also developed an action primer with ways to take action locally and globally:
The Great Transformation: Find ways to move your community to 100% clean energy
- Ask your leaders to support affordable and accessible clean energy and clean jobs: solar, wind and electric cars
- Commit to individual action to find ways to reduce your energy consumption and carbon footprint
- Join local educational efforts and organisations fighting climate change
The Safeguard: Support coral reef preservation
- Repopulate the most resilient coral strains
- Protect reefs from threatening activities like dredging and overfishing by choosing part-full time veganism
- Donate time/money to organisations working directly to preserve our coral reefs
As Chasing Coral draws to a close, diver and coral enthusiast, Zack Rago, makes a heartfelt plea about the power of curiosity and education:
He's right. Children are born-scientists, excited to test hypotheses and develop solutions. So kids, hold onto that curiosity, care for and about our oceans, and innovate.