Coral reefs are facing their own pandemic: 3 stories you may have missed

© Jeff Yonover

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. A deadly disease is wiping out coral in Florida and the Caribbean 

Coral reefs are at risk due to a disease outbreak. 

The story: A lethal disease known as stony coral tissue loss is devastating coral colonies across Florida’s coast and much of the northern Caribbean. Likely caused by bacteria or a virus, the disease spreads through water currents and on the bottoms of shipping vessels, reports Douglas Main for National Geographic. It can infect and kill at least 22 coral species, including slow-growing and reef-building corals — which build up massive layers of calcium carbonate and help form fully functioning reef ecosystems. 

“Colonies that took hundreds of years to grow can be wiped out in a matter of weeks,” marine ecologist Craig Dahlgren told National Geographic. 

The big picture: The stony coral tissue loss disease outbreak could put even more pressure on Caribbean corals, which are already severly threatened by climate change, experts say. However, humans are also to blame: A recent study revealed that two crucial coral species in the Caribbean started declining decades before climate change began impacting the world’s oceans — showing that overfishing and coastal development can have drastic impacts on coral reefs. 

“Local human activities such as overfishing and coastal development have been weakening coral reef health for quite some time,” said Katie Cramer, Conservation International’s ocean science fellow and the study’s lead author. “Local actions matter for the future of coral reefs. The best way to help them cope with the intensifying impacts of ocean warming is to reduce these other stressors affecting them.”  

Read more here

Indigenous knowledge could help communities in India adapt to climate change. 

The story: Northeastern India is one of the wettest regions on Earth, and climate change has only made rainfall more intense, leading to severe flooding. Fortunately, some Indigenous communities are cultivating “Jingkieng Jri” — living root bridges which allow people to pass over flooded rivers and ravines after rainstorms, reports Zinara Rathnayake for BBC. 

The bridges are created by planting and weaving the aerial roots of fig trees onto a bamboo scaffolding, which creates a dense frame-like structure. Not only are these bridges more cost-effective and durable than cement alternatives, they also prevent mudslides by stabilizing the soil and provide habitats for local wildlife. 

The big picture: Natural infrastructure such as living root bridges can deliver the same protection against climate impacts as artificial infrastructure — such as seawalls and drainage systems — for half the cost, according to a new study.

In some cases, natural adaptation measures — including the restoration of coastal buffers such as seagrasses — can be combined with conventional structures such as concrete dams and seawalls. Conservation International is pioneering this approach — known as “green-gray infrastructure” — in the Philippines to help communities adapt to rising sea levels and fortify their coastlines against storms by increasing mangrove restoration efforts and building breakwaters.

Read more here.

The heart of the Amazon is under siege. 

The story: According to new data, 13,235 square kilometers (5,100 square miles) of forest — an area nearly 17 times the size of New York City — have been lost in Brazil between August 2020 and July 2021, reports Jake Spring and Anthony Boadle for Reuters. The analysis shows a 22 percent rise in deforestation from the previous year, which scientists say is pushing the Amazon closer to its “tipping point,” after which it will lose the ability to generate rainfall and gradually transform into a dry savanna. 

The big picture: Roughly 15 percent of the Amazon has been deforested so far; the tipping point could occur if a quarter of the forest is lost. At current deforestation rates, that could happen in 10 to 15 years, scientists predict

Further, a new study found that the Amazon holds Earth’s largest reserve of irrecoverable carbon — defined as carbon that, if emitted into the atmosphere, could not be restored by 2050. However, if this ecosystem continues to be destroyed, that climate-warming carbon could be released, explained Juan Carlos Ledezma, a Conservation International technical specialist based in Bolivia. 

“Increased deforestation will accelerate climate change, fueling higher temperatures and lower humidity in the Amazon. This could dry up this rainforest — and release the carbon it holds,” Ledezma explained. “Additionally, dry forests are more likely to catch fire, which would release even more carbon. It’s a dangerous feedback loop, which we must avoid.”

Read more here


Kiley Price is the staff writer and news editor at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Donate to Conservation International.

Cover image: French grunts, squirrelfish, blue tang  and soft coral on a shallow reef. Shot in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas (© Jeff Yonover)

Further reading: