Nearly one-fifth of coral reefs lost and more threatened


THE WORLD has already lost nearly one-fifth of its coral reefs and many of the remaining reefs could be denuded of life over the next 20 to 40 years as a result of climate change and other threats, the Global Reef Monitoring Network said yesterday.

Its latest report on their deteriorating status was released in Poznan as the UN Environment Programme warned that weather-related natural disasters, such as hurricanes, were now outstripping earthquakes as a leading cause of loss of life.

Climate change is the biggest danger to the survival of coral reefs, with rising sea surface temperatures and acidification aggravated by overfishing and other threats, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Most of the damage was done by a mass bleaching of reefs in 1998, from which few recovered. While Australia’s famed Great Barrier Reef is still rated as being in good condition, reefs in the Indian Ocean suffered damage ranging from 45 to 70 per cent.

Major threats in the last four years, including the Indian Ocean tsunami, outbreaks of coral diseases and ever-heavier human pressures, such as dynamite fishing, have slowed or reversed recovery of some reefs after the 1998 mass bleaching.

The report stresses the importance of minimising climate change. “If nothing is done to substantially cut emissions, we could effectively lose coral reefs as we know them,” according to Clive Wilkinson, of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

Prof Olof Linden, of the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden, said: “To save coral reefs, we must focus on helping corals to adapt to climate change and on diverting people away from destructive practices such as overfishing.” He stressed that good management of reefs in countries such as Australia, French Polynesia and the Marshall Islands was helping to protect them. But the situation was much more desperate in Sri Lanka, southern India, Kenya and Tanzania.

A World Bank report has identified Vietnam as the country with most to lose if sea levels rise by one metre. More than 10 per cent of its population would be displaced, 7 per cent of its farmland flooded and 30 per cent of wetlands destroyed.

Meanwhile, 2008 will go down as the “second costliest and deadliest” for natural disasters in modern times, according to Thomas Loster, of the Munich Re Foundation. They included Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma last May, claiming 84,500 lives.

Mr Loster said extreme weather events accounted for nine out of every 10 natural disasters in 2008. Jamaica was hit three times by hurricanes within weeks during the late summer – an all-time record – despite lower sea surface temperatures. “If you look at weather data, every year is different. Over the last 30 years, you find that earthquakes have increased by 50 per cent while weather-related disasters have increased by as much as 350 per cent and wind storms have doubled.”

Mr Loster said this pattern showed that projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were true, because they were borne out by data. “Climate change has arrived, there is no doubt about that.”