Imperiled Coral Reefs, Gone by 2050?


A coral reef turned white by bleaching, a stress reaction to high ocean temperaturesEven now, three-quarters of all coral reefs around the world are threatened. By 2050 “nearly all” coral reefs will be gone unless something is done soon to stop it, according to a report released last week by the World Resources Institute.

Assaulted by warming temperatures, acidifying waters, pollution, and overfishing, coral reefs are aptly described as the “rainforest of the sea,” supporting a vast ecosystem that includes the livelihoods of a half billion people.

Saving the reefs. Think locally, act globally

Following on earlier studies, the new study, called “Reefs at Risk Revisited,” warns that 90 percent of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030, and at least 95 percent by 2050, if action is not taken now to stop it.

The immediate threat to coral is local pressures like pollution, overfishing, agricultural runoff, and coastal development – stresses converging in a “perfect storm of threats to reefs” according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Jane Lubchenco.

Added to the immediate and local threat is the added stress of  rising temperatures from increased CO2 emissions, leading to widespread coral bleaching events and acidifying oceans.

“Ocean acidification reduces coral growth rates,” the report says, “… and, if unchecked, could reduce their ability to maintain their physical structure.”

Not committed to a world without coral reefs

A world with dead or dying reefs is “not a future we are committed to,” said Lauretta Burke, one of the study’s lead authors. But a commitment to save the reefs through immediate broad action is required to avoid such a future.

Burke urges policymakers to focus on implementing swift measures to ease local pressures on coral reefs – in particular overfishing – and take steps to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are quickly raising temperatures and acidifying ocean waters.

Absent such action, at least 500 million people will lose their means of survival along with the coral, much of those in the developing world, along the coasts southeast Asia and the Indian ocean, where last year saw a dramatic coral die-off due to a sudden spike in ocean temperatures.

Coral reefs provide important environmental and economic services, the loss of which is a devastating prospect. Reefs at Risk is, hopefully, a wake-up call for us to do something to avert such a fate.

Reefs at Risk Revisited:
Executive Summary (pdf)
Full Report (pdf)

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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