The digital age has brought an unprecedented amount of knowledge only a swipe away for most Tar Heels. In turn, with that deluge of information, many of us have become keenly aware of our emotional bandwidth. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, mass shootings, social injustice, and radicalization at the highest echelons of our government, many Americans are simply saturated with the number of issues that they’re capable of caring about. So why on Earth would the average Tar Heel care about coral reefs? Despite their captivating allure, these trying times can make coral reefs feel distant, and even completely disconnected from our everyday life. However, all corners of our modern society are inexorably linked to these biological oases through the wealth of ecosystem services they provide. And while the threat of their demise looms under the shadow of climate change, the stories of coral reefs, and of the people working to save them, can inspire hope in a time when it is sorely needed.
Coral reefs have been called ‘The Rainforests of the Ocean’ for a variety of reasons. Like rainforests, coral reefs attract a staggering variety of species by engineering their own environment. Despite occupying less than one percent of the world’s oceans, coral reefs support almost 25% of all known marine species. Among these are many commercially important fish species such as grouper, snapper, and lobster. Even coral reef inhabitants that don’t seem commercially relevant, such as sponges and sea urchins, are providing novel insights into medical research and pharmaceutical applications. Aside from the biological nexus that coral reef structures create, their physical presence dissipates more than 97% of wave energy, thereby protecting vital coastal communities within 50 km of the shore. All of these aforementioned ecosystem services don’t even begin to portray the full cultural significance of coral reefs, where they play a central role in the identity and social cohesion of millions of people around the world. To summarize in more common terms, coral reefs and their subsequent ecosystem services are estimated to contribute more than $40 billion to the global economy.
For decades, researchers have been documenting the not-so-steady decline of coral reefs worldwide. While the list of culprits responsible for this decline is long, they generally fall into two categories: global stressors (ocean warming and acidification) and local stressors (land-use change, pollution, physical breakage, etc.). For the average Tar Heel, this general categorization makes doing your part in saving coral reefs simple. For global stressors, any measures taken to lower your carbon footprint (using public transit, owning plants, and conscientious utility use) are going to help coral reefs worldwide. If you vacation or live near a coral reef, make sure to support local partners and companies dedicated to responsible ecotourism. If you find yourself swimming amidst the rainforests of the ocean, make sure to apply reef-safe sunscreen well before jumping into the water. Furthermore, while the colorful coral rocks may look robust, they are actually quite fragile (both physically and chemically), so avoid touching them as you mingle with the fishes.
While current events can make us all feel a bit out of our depth, I think many Tar Heels will find that caring for coral reefs comes quite naturally.
Peer editor: Devan Shell