Findings from the Global Reef Expedition: Swift Action is Needed to Address Climate Change

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Climate change is affecting oceans globally, but many believe coral reefs are the world’s “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to irreversible damage resulting from climate impacts.

To understand the mechanisms of climate change, it is important to look at the history of carbon emissions. In the 1880s, the industrial revolution catalyzed the use of carbon-based fuel and helped advance human civilization in ways very few could imagine. However, one downside to this advancement was the exponential release and trapping of carbon in our atmosphere, usually in the form of carbon dioxide. For the past 140 years, this accumulation has resulted in substantial changes to the Earth’s climate.

The Earth’s ocean is a net carbon sink, meaning it absorbs more carbon than it releases. Within the ocean, there are many chemical changes that can occur as the amount of carbon dioxide is dissolved into the water. One of the most common changes is a decrease in the ocean’s pH as it becomes more acidic as more CO2 is absorbed, a term commonly referred to as ocean acidification (OA). This decrease in pH has led to numerous physiological problems in marine animals, particularly calcifying organisms like those found on coral reefs.

United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 and its Importance for Coastal Marine Ecosystems

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This week, the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 is taking place in Glasgow, United Kingdom. This conference will bring together world leaders so they can address global climate policy and action, and assess the progress made to address climate change that was promised in previous years. The decisions made at this meeting could have lasting consequences for marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, that are particularly sensitive to climate change.

The primary goals of COP26 are to secure global net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century and to adapt policies to protect communities and natural habitats. Net-zero carbon emissions does not mean no carbon will be released, but that any carbon emitted will be offset by other actions taken to remove it from the atmosphere.

Certain coastal marine ecosystems, such as mangrove forests, seagrass beds, and salt marshes, are particularly good at sequestering carbon by pulling it out of the air and storing it underground. Protecting and restoring these ecosystems (as we do in our Mangrove Education & Restoration Program) can not only conserve the marine environment, it can also help combat climate change. These ecosystems can also help coastal communities naturally adapt to other impacts of climate change by protecting the coast from storms, reducing erosion, and helping the shoreline keep up with sea level rise.