To start off, what even are coral reefs? They come in all colours, shapes, and sizes and are mostly found in shallow tropical waters (although some corals are also found in the deep sea, just not as colourful, but equally important). Corals get their colour from microscopic plants that live within their tissues. In addition, most of their nourishment comes from these plants.
This symbiosis is vital for both parties, however, current human activity and rapidly changing conditions have made coral reefs extremely vulnerable. The ocean is a magnet for heat. With greenhouse gases trapping warmth, most of the heat gets absorbed by the ocean, making its temperature rise. A rise in temperature, even if it’s just by a degree or two, can be devastating for coral reefs. With higher temperatures, the corals expel their plant partners and lose their vibrant colour and main source of food. If temperatures remain high for even a few weeks, the corals will starve and eventually die.
What is more, carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases, is making the ocean more acidic - these 2 factors are just too much for the coral reefs to handle.
Even though they cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth (home to 25% of all marine creatures). Over 1 million species live in and depend on coral reefs: it’s their main source of food, shelter, and spawning ground. If their habitat were to be destroyed, a huge number of fish, turtles, and other aquatic creatures would be lost alongside coral reefs.
Many people mistake corals for plants, but in fact, they are stationary animals, meaning they stay in one place for most of their life. To protect themselves from predators, many corals have evolved chemical defenses, which have medicinal potential. Plants and animals that live in coral reefs are important sources of new medicines being developed to treat heart diseases, viruses, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and other diseases. In the near future, ecological communities that live in coral reefs could become a very important source of medical treatments
Coral reefs have been growing in our ocean for 50 million years, yet today, even the healthy coral reefs are facing a great threat. Despite bringing great benefits to us, coral reefs are extremely vulnerable to human activity. With the current environmental situation, they are bound to go extinct, and with them, take millions of other creatures that depend on them.
Margarita is an Estonian volunteer in Praxis organisation involved in the World Oceans Day campaign.