Why Did I Write a New Book on Coral Reefs in 2021?

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I began to draft this book in 2016, not 2021, but the world was not so different.  Why would I write a book about an ecosystem that is fast disassembling and is unlikely to endure, in any form that is recognizably a coral reef, past the middle of this century?  What’s the point?  Coral reefs are toast, right, so let’s focus our attention on those parts of the world that can still be saved.  Coral reefs can no longer inspire people to care about the planet; they seem doomed to fail.  Talk about doom and gloom.

And yet, I cannot quite convince myself that I’ve been engaged on a fool’s errand.  Time will tell.

The new book – it becomes more real day by day and should be available in physical form on 25th May.  Can be pre-ordered here, here, here, and especially at your favorite independent bookstore. 
Cover photo © Victor Huertas.

In 2018, the IPCC wrote that 95% of coral reefs would likely disappear by 2100 even if we managed to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees, and that 99% would be gone if we only managed 2 degrees.  The world is currently headed for at least 3 degrees, so you know where that puts coral reefs. 

Of course, the eventual ‘disappearance’ or ‘disassembly’ will be far more difficult to detect than was the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which occurred on 1 September 1914 when Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo, or that of the northern white rhinoceros, which will occur when Nanjin, born in 1989, and her daughter Fatu, born in 2000, both die.  With no males left, it is already functionally extinct even if some scientists contemplate in vitro fertilization and surrogate pregnancy in another species.  Species go extinct when the last living individual dies.  But coral reefs?  They are not individual organisms and they won’t go extinct.  Instead they will gradually degrade as more and more of their component species decline in numbers or go extinct, and the network of connections among those species unravels. 

There will never be a fixed date documenting the final disappearance of coral reefs, but one day not too far into the future they will no longer exist.  (Unless we keep climate change to no more than 2 degrees and IPCC was right to claim only 99% rather than 100% will be gone.)  Naturally, we will continue to call them coral reefs long after they have functionally ceased to be coral reefs and become something else – limestone benches, algal reefs, rubble banks.  We tend not to notice slow degradation in the environment, a phenomenon known as the shifting baseline syndrome.  Indeed, our willingness to watch as baselines shift is a big part of the coral reef problem; we become accustomed to seeing progressively degraded reefs, forgetting what ‘real’ coral reefs were like, and because we become accustomed, we fail to recognize or appreciate the degradation occurring before our eyes. 

So back to my starting question: why did I choose now to write a book about coral reefs?  There are two answers. 

First, I still believe against all evidence that significant numbers of people can begin to care sufficiently about coral reefs to build the political will we need to fight for their continuance.  That also would strengthen our resolve to tackle climate change, a resolve badly in need of strengthening as the Paris Agreement fades into the past to become one more target not achieved, and the Anthropocene enters a future of existential danger for humanity and a host of other species.  Climate scientists are already warning of heat waves over substantial geographic areas in South Asia, warm enough to cause major loss of human life.  A wet-bulb temperature of 35oC is lethal to humans and such temperatures have already occurred in some parts of India and Pakistan.  Their frequency is projected to double in the region by mid-century, even at 1.5oC warming.  What happens when significant parts of the world become too hot to survive in?  We need far more effort to counteract climate change and a real fight to save coral reefs would help.

Second, I recognize that most people have never seen a coral reef, and we are not likely to care about something we do not know.  Remote from most of us, and also marine, reefs are definitely part of the Other – not familiar to us, not understood and certainly not loved.  Perhaps one more book about reefs can build understanding and engender a commitment to save them, but even if, as is likely, we ultimately fail and reefs disappear, at least we will have some understanding of just what we have lost.  Because reefs are among the most majestic, most magnificent, most wondrous examples of what evolution can create; we need to know about them, even if they are no longer here.

I vividly remember a small conference hosted by the newly formed National Coral Reef Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1999.  About 500 coral reef scientists were gathered to explore the science of assessing, monitoring, and restoring coral reefs.  There were the usual plenary talks, contributed papers, and lively poster sessions, where enthusiastic students and professors display posters describing their current research and try to entice other participants with their elevator pitches: “My work is really exciting because…”.

Poster sessions are great times for conversation, about the posters and about a host of other topics.  The coral reef science community is a widely scattered, but closely knit community of colleagues, collaborators, and friends.  In the best conferences (and this was one) the conversations are helped along by a liberal supply of alcohol and snacks.  I don’t remember my paper, or much else about that conference, but I do remember those conversations, because so many of them centered on the circumtropical bleaching event that had just ended late the year before. 

A mass bleaching event is a rapid and conspicuous change on a reef, caused by physiological stress being experienced by the corals.  The stress leads to a breakdown of the most important symbiotic relationship on reefs, that between the corals and their microscopic algal symbionts. It is this symbiosis that permits the extraordinarily fast calcification rates that build coral reefs.  The algal cells (hundreds of thousands to millions per square centimeter of coral tissue) are pigmented, and as they are expelled the coral turns a ghostly white.  This can happen overnight.  In 1997-1998, during the then strongest el Niño event on record, coral reefs had turned white around the world.  It was the first time bleaching had occurred on such a massive scale.  Over the weeks after bleaching, many of those corals had died, and there were reports of reefs in all oceans that had suffered extremely high die-offs of coral.  The Fort Lauderdale conference was the first opportunity many of us had to talk with colleagues who had witnessed this destruction.  We all understood the seriousness of what had happened; it would happen again and again as the world warmed.  I remember we all anticipated that a “signal” as conspicuous as what had just occurred would surely be a sign to the world that we had to deal with climate change, and quickly.  We found that expectation comforting.  Except that it did not happen.  Most of the world just did not care.

I now understand that people mostly do not care about things they cannot relate to.  Since 1999 there have been numerous instances of coral bleaching around the world.  They have been well-covered in the media, if sometimes with a bit too much hyperbole – Outside magazine published the Great Barrier Reef’s obituary in 2016.  Anyone who pays attention to environmental news is aware that coral reefs are in serious trouble.  And yet, for the most part, reef problems are simply sad environmental stories, something to be thought about briefly, maybe even sadly, before getting on with one’s life.  Reefs are not important to the great majority of us, and so their disassembly is something we have been learning to watch dispassionately.  So much for that grand signal that would alert the world to the risks of climate change. Perhaps I am naïve, but I thought I could write a book that would make reefs more ‘real’ to readers and forge that missing link between us and the Other. 

So this book is about what reefs are, rather than a book about what is happening to them.  The phenomena, the places, the events I describe are a small selection of what might have been chosen, an idiosyncratic selection based on my own interests and area of expertise.  Other reef scientists would write vastly different books; each is a glance through another lens revealing part of what reefs are.

Yet another wonderful image of a coral reef.  This photo was taken in 2014 along the Saudi coast of the Red Sea. 
Image © Luiz Rocha

While the book is about what reefs are, I do take the time, and space to reflect on why what has been happening to reefs since the 1980s (climate impacts) or earlier (other human impacts) has not been strongly motivating to people as we naively thought it would be in 1999.  The final chapters shift from the coral reef story to consider the challenge now confronting humanity, and what is needed to meet that challenge.  I see that challenge as a heroic voyage in which we steer our planet safely through seas made treacherous by our past behavior. Rather than repeat the options available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, curtailing nutrification, avoiding the release to Nature of damaging pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, eliminating plastic wastes, or stemming the flows of invasive species, I focus on the need to build the will to act and the changes in perspective that will be required to do so.  I believe that without making substantial changes in how we view our place in Nature, we will never build sufficient will to solve this global environmental emergency.  Perhaps we can begin to make that change if we can see coral reefs, and other complex ecosystems, as having an inherent right to exist on this planet.