Nov 15, 2022 - News

Coral reefs in the Gulf need immediate action

Illustration of an emergency light with coral inside

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico are in danger as ocean temperatures continue to rise.

Driving the news: A study by climate scientists and marine biologists found that many regions of the Gulf and the western Caribbean Sea could reach critically warm temperatures as early as 2050, which poses a serious risk for coral survival.

Yes, but: It's not too late. Reducing emissions and taking action now could delay damage and protect the areas where reefs are still healthy, according to the climate model simulations that looked at both a "business as usual" high emission scenario and a reduced emission scenario.

Why it matters: The mesophotic reefs contribute to the rich biodiversity in the Gulf and the Caribbean and provide habitat for many species of marine animals, says Sylvia Dee, a Rice University professor and co-author of the study.

Zoom in: Dee says runoff from Houston-area refineries and oil spills is a direct and immediate threat to nearby corals. And while solving climate change is a slow process, managing local pollution would be a short-term and impactful fix.

What they're saying: "Some of the healthiest reefs that we still have in the United States are in the areas covered by these projections," said Rice marine biologist and co-author of the study Adrienne Correa. "The fact that we're going to see these changes by 2050 is a strong wake-up call."

  • "The results [from the study] are a bit sobering in that they show us that we only have a few decades to try to prepare for an almost total loss of these coral reef systems," Dee says.

How it works: Ocean warming and acidification lead to coral bleaching — when algae leaves the corals, causing them to turn completely white.

State of play: Drastic coral bleaching would impact the organisms that rely on the reefs and the subsequent food chain and could also harm local tourism and commercial fisheries near Galveston.

  • Plus: It would leave the coast even more vulnerable to tropical storms, according to Dee.

The bottom line: "The only thing that will protect all of the world's coral reefs is slowing ocean warming … and reducing carbon dioxide emissions as fast as we can," Dee says.

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