Reefs key protection from rising seas

Protected marine areas can be a key tool in protecting coastal communities from the impacts of a changing climate, a conservation group has said.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) pointed to the natural flood protection offered by coral reefs and mangroves – many of them disappearing – as the IPCC released its assessment of the future impacts climate change, warning that millions will be hit by rising sea levels (see related story),

Coral reefs, which shield coastal settlements from typhoons, storms and floods, are disappearing fast as coral bleaching and over-fishing take their toll. 20% of the world’s coral reefs have already been wrecked and 50% are threatened with collapse, IUCN said.

“Better protecting our oceans is essential for tackling climate change. Our oceans play a fundamental role in shaping and regulating our climate, and yet today, only 1% of our oceans are protected,” said IUCN’s Dan Laffoley.

“Marine protected areas are vital in promoting the recovery of our oceans and in supporting the survival of millions of people living by the sea over the coming century,” he said.

The loss of a fifth of the world’s coral reefs may not have been as radical had a network of marine protected areas been in place, said Carl Gustav Lundin, head of IUCN’s global marine programme.

Although increased protection cannot stop coral bleaching — the main cause of vast areas of reef dying off – as temperatures rise, they can help the reefs recover after heat waves and make sure they are not lost forever.

“The recovery process is much faster for healthy ecosystems,” Carl Gustav Lundin explained. “Just as a healthy person recovers quicker, so a healthy ecosystem will ultimately survive when a damaged one would not,” he told edie.

In the long term, evolution may catch up with climate change and reefs may survive but in the meantime a support network if we are to help them recover as sea temperatures continue to rise, he said.

Some of the most vulnerable areas lie in South East Asia and Indian Ocean states, with their densely populated coastlines and a population highly dependent on the productivity of reefs.

The Maldives, the Indian Ocean island state, is a poignant example of the impacts of rising sea levels and how these can be lessened by natural flood protection. With 80% of the islands lying no more than 1m above sea level, the entire population may be forced to evacuate within 100 years. In the meantime the government is investing in forestation schemes to avert beach erosion and in the protection of coral reefs that act as natural barriers against tidal surges.

The destruction of coral reefs not only leaves coastal communities exposed when extreme weather events strike, but also deprives them of a source of income – coral reefs currently provide livelihoods to 100m people and are the basis for industries such as tourism and fishing worth US$30bn annually.

Coral reefs also play their part in curbing climate change as important sinks for carbon dioxide-vast areas of reef around the world are often as efficient as forests in absorbing carbon.

“Governments and the conservation community need to step up marine protection if we are to support the global effort to tackle climate change,” said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, director general of the IUCN.

Goska Romanowicz

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