Last December, I went on a diving expedition in Indonesia to a place called Raja Ampat. It is at the heart of the Coral Triangle and the epicenter of coral biodiversity.
The reefs I saw there were immaculate. Healthy corals covered the reef for as far as the eye could see and the fish life was equally spectacular. However, this was a far cry from what I’d been witnessing for the last couple of years on other reefs.
I wrote a blog for Virgin Unite in June last year about my experience and how coral reefs were on the frontline of climate change. The third Global Coral Bleaching Event has been the biggest coral die-off ever recorded and our team has been on that frontline recording and revealing it wherever possible.
As the ocean continues to rapidly warm, coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate. Last year 22 per cent of corals on the Great Barrier Reef died. Now, less than a year after this massive die-off, the Great Barrier Reef is again facing widespread bleaching. The third Global Coral Bleaching Event, which has lasted longer than both the previous two events combined, is showing no sign of ending. We are rapidly losing this vital ecosystem, an ecosystem that supports a quarter of all marine life and half a billion people who rely on it for food and livelihoods.
People generally don’t realise the impact of climate change on the ocean. What is happening underwater is still very much “out of sight, out of mind” – we more easily associate climate issues with what we can see on land.
We risk losing coral reefs entirely by 2050
However, the reality is that 93 per cent of all climate change heat is absorbed by the ocean, compared with just 1per cent that is absorbed by the atmosphere. Climate change has heated the upper ocean about 1°C / 1.8°F in the last 100 years. 1°C might not sound like a lot, but to put it into perspective, imagine your internal body temperature increasing by that amount and never dropping back to normal. You’d be sick – chronically sick.
That 1°C rise was enough to cause the worst coral die-off ever recorded. Science now tells us, with a high level of certainty, that if the average ocean temperature rises 1.5°C (above pre-industrial levels) we will lose about 90 per cent of coral reefs. Given that the Paris climate agreement target is to limit warming to between 2 and 1.5°C, this devastating high loss of coral reefs seems inevitable.
What is even more alarming, if we don’t act now to protect the reefs that can be saved from all the other issues they are facing, (such as pollution and over fishing), we risk losing coral reefs entirely by 2050. This jeopardises the main food source and livelihoods of half a billion people in some of the world’s poorest countries.
As the ocean continues to rapidly warm, coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate
There are some great initiatives to protect coral reefs in various regions, however, surprisingly when I wrote the blog last year, there was no coordinated, global plan to save coral reefs. It seemed obvious that we desperately needed a global plan, to not only identify and protect the reefs that are naturally less vulnerable to climate change but also the reefs that are best able to re-seed other reefs when the climate is stabilised.
Together with our partners at the Global Change Institute at The University of Queensland, The Ocean Agency developed a plan to do just that – to protect the future of coral reefs. To protect reefs like the ones I saw in Raja Ampat. Bloomberg Philanthropies heard about our plan and approached us together with The Tiffany & Co. Foundation and The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and just a few months later, the plan is now in motion, launching this week at the Economist World Ocean Summit – it is called 50 Reefs.
We’re only at the start of this initiative, but we are hoping 50 Reefs will catalyse the global action and investment required to protect coral reefs for the future.
The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 was a massive wake-up call to the world when it hit the headlines. The biggest coral reef in the world was dying. In hindsight, this may have been a pivotal point for the survival of all coral reefs. We now have a global plan to save this ecosystem and growing support from partners for the action required to do so. It certainly allows me to end this blog far more optimistically than the last. If you are interested in getting involved in 50 Reefs, please contact us through 50 Reefs.org
This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Richard Vevers is the CEO and Founder of The Ocean Agency and his work to reveal the crisis facing coral reefs is the subject of the award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.