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Coral Bleaching On Again – How do we tell the story more effectively this time


Coral bleaching seems to be on again, global, and just as bad as 1998.

2014 has been the warmest year ever recorded on this planet, surpassing 2010, 2005 and 1998 in global mean temperature. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center will make this official on or about January 8th, although the likelihood has been evident for several months now. This should not be a surprise; our emissions of GHGs continue to grow, and that extra insulation has to result in the planet warming up.

Also apparent is that the long-awaited el Niño has continued to develop, although it looks to be a weak one. On 4th December the NOAA Climate Prediction Center stated there was a 65% chance of a weak el Niño beginning in December/January and continuing into the northern Spring.
NOAA SST Anomaly 5 Jan 15

There are signs that sea surface temperature (SST) is becoming anomalously warm in the Indian, west Pacific and south Atlantic oceans. Colors code for differences from average climate in degrees C. Plot is dated 5th January 2015. Map courtesy NOAA.

The NOAA Satellite and Information Service’s Coral Reef Watch is now anticipating a global coral bleaching event over 2014-2015 to rival that of 1997-1998. Reports of bleaching have already been received from a number of North Pacific locations including the Northern Marianas Islands, Guam, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, and Kiribati, and the very warm sea surface temperatures, coupled with the likelihood of el Niño conditions over the next several months suggest that bleaching is likely at many other locations. Coral Reef Watch has provided weekly maps of ‘thermal stress’ through May 2015 that show gradually intensifying threat in the south-west Pacific and the Indian Ocean through to about April, and a gradual shift to more northerly regions.
coral reef watch 4 Jan 15 cur_img_ss_outlook_cfs_rank12_lw01_45ns

This plot shows the risk of coral bleaching for week of 4 January 2015. Bleaching and mortality expected in areas shown as Alert level 1 or 2. Map courtesy NOAA Coral Reef Watch

The 1997-1998 event was the most extensive series of mass bleachings ever recorded and had a major impact on coral reef scientists and conservationists around the world. If we had not really ‘got it’ before, we realized then just what climate change was going to mean to our coral reefs. As I wrote in Our Dying Planet, the bleaching began with bleaching on central and east Pacific reefs during the northern summer of 1997. Bleaching intensified in the west and south Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef during February to April 1998, and in the Indian Ocean by March to June 1998. Bleaching occurred in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean during July to October 1998. All told, about 15% of living coral cover, worldwide was killed during the ~18 month period, and reefs have not materially recovered their coral abundances in the years since (partly because there have been further episodes of bleaching as well as many other causes of coral loss). There is reasonably solid monitoring data showing that overall, both the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean now have less than 50% of the coral cover they had a quarter-century ago, although frequent bouts of bleaching is just one of many causes of coral loss.
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Bleaching is the expulsion of symbiotic algae from coral tissues, leaving the corals translucent and their skeletons clearly visible within. Conditions causing bleaching that persist for several weeks lead to extensive coral mortality. Photo © Ove Hoegh-Guldberg


The coral reef story – not effectively told

The losses of coral over the past 25 years have occurred in countries with poor environmental management, and in countries with effective local management of their reefs. They have occurred within marine protected areas and outside them. The losses have been due to many different human causes acting differentially at different sites, but bleaching due to warming is becoming more important as our climate warms (mass bleaching due to warm water was unknown prior to the strong el Niño of 1982-1983 which led to loss of coral in the Galapagos, Panama and other nearby locations).

Bleaching and other factors, together, have been chipping away at what ecologists refer to as the global ‘standing stock’ of coral, much as over-harvest, insect-borne pathogens, and mismanagement of forested land have together been chipping away at the global standing stock of trees. In both cases, the causes of mortality are predominantly due to something we humans are doing, or not doing. And, for corals, 2015 looks likely to see another downward lurch on this dismal path towards extinction.

Imagine, if you will, that we woke up one day to learn that 15% of all trees in all of the world’s forests – all of them – had died in one 18 month period because of some sensitivity to climate change. Would the world take notice? Imagine that forest scientists had accumulated sound monitoring data for two large areas of the world’s forests – say the Amazon basin, and the boreal forests of Scandinavia – and those data showed that both these regions had lost 50% of their trees in the last quarter century. Would the world take notice? That is the current situation for coral reefs – globally they lost 15% of coral in 1997-8 due to bleaching, and overall, the Great Barrier Reef and the Caribbean have each lost over 50% of their coral during the last quarter century. You’d sure think the world might take notice!

One sign of just how bad the situation has become for coral reefs was the news report in the Sun Sentinel on 29th December that ’38 acres’ of rare staghorn coral had been discovered in patches off the Florida coast stretching from Golden Beach to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) is a rapidly growing, formerly common Caribbean coral. But it is now on the endangered species list, and being eliminated by diseases and bleaching throughout its range. The video in the report showed low diversity (monotypic?) stands of low relief coral on a sandy substratum – the kind of staghorn thicket that can grow quickly, or disappear in a single modest storm. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good news that these staghorn thickets have been found, but thirty years ago it would hardly have been front page news, let alone something to trumpet here and there on whatever qualified as social media of that day.

Scientists have been calling attention to the plight of coral reefs for decades, and particularly since 1998. We thought, naively, that just as we were shocked at how rapidly our reefs were being degraded, other people would be alarmed too. That the clear message corals were sending – that something is not right in the way we are caring for our planet – would be clearly received. And acted upon! That did not happen, and now we face the very real danger that in announcing, once again, that our reefs are at risk, we will be dismissed out of hand as old news, not important, boring, repetitive, so last century, so very Chicken Little.
sky-is-falling-carton-cropped-flattened Mark MacMillan

We’ve been talking about coral reef decline for so long, people are starting to treat it as old news. Cartoon from

crisis reports

Just some of the reporting. Montage thanks to

Why does the coral reef story not resonate more than it does? It’s not just that it is bad news that people do not want to hear – it can be, and has been, told in a way that emphasizes the very good news that there are lots of things that people can do to prevent the sorry slide continuing, to buy time while we bring climate change under control. I think there are four other reasons why it has been largely ignored beyond the environmental community: The story is impersonal. It does not take place in my neighborhood. Disney has yet to get hold of it and tell it properly. And perhaps most important of all, the real story is a complicated one about humans upsetting the universe – not one that readily comes to mind when images of degraded coral reefs are shown. Let’s talk about each of these, and then see if there is something that could be done to tell this story more effectively.

The coral reef story is impersonal.

Corals are not like polar bears. Or pandas. Or even monarch butterflies. They do not have round faces with big brown eyes, or even pinched little faces with a rolled up tongue. They don’t have faces at all. Even scientists could not decide at first whether they were animals, plants, or mossy rocks. (Full disclosure… as a reef fish ecologist, I have secretly delighted from time to time in causing mild anguish among my Cnidariophilic brethren, by referring to their precious corals as just so much environmental structure! All the time, deep down inside, knowing my fish needed their corals living and healthy.)

Dendrogyra cylindridrus, a Caribbean coral with particularly large polyps that are usually out, waving about during daylight. Photo © Paul Humann

Nearly all corals exist as colonies rather than discrete individuals, and the individual polyps of which they are composed are not that much to write home about – a simple, tubular body with a single opening (mouth, anus, genital pore, ugh) surrounded by stubby tentacles, no bold color patterns or extra frilly bits, nothing that shouts out ‘I am an individual polyp and proud of it’. Only together, as a colony, do they build the myriad structural forms that make a coral reef so wonderfully topologically complex a place for other creatures to inhabit.

The diversity of colony forms makes every patch of coral reef topologically unique, an architectural complexity unrivaled in the ocean. Photo © Stephanie Sykora

Yet even as colonies they lack that obvious life story of birth, growth, adolescence, adulthood and eventual death that we can relate to. Colonies can die partially, or totally, but either way, the deaths do not result in what most people would recognize as lots of corpses lying about. In fact, if the death is partial, even if 90% of the colony has died, an improvement in conditions can lead to the colony becoming large once more as new polyps are budded. Under ideal conditions, there is no reason why a single coral colony could not live forever. Of course, there have been cases when very large, and therefore very old, colonies of coral have succumbed and died, or when known, monitored, coral colonies have died completely. And in these cases it is possible to talk about the loss of that individual colony as if it really mattered. Charlie Veron has done this effectively in talking about the loss of massive, 700 year old colonies of Porites species on the Great Barrier Reef. Gene Shinn has talked about loss of individual colonies in specific coral patches he has visited in the Florida Keys over 30 years or so.
Gene Shinn Montastrea Grecian Rocks FL 1971 2001

A colony of Montastrea sp at Grecian Rocks, Florida Keys, photographed in 1971, 1988, and 2001. The colony did not change much, but its surroundings changed enormously as extensive Acropora thickets were lost and replaced by various gorgonians. Photos © Gene Shinn/USGS

Overall, however, this lack of unique individuality makes it difficult to sense loss emotionally when hearing about the death of some coral, and we make that difficulty even harder by talking about reef degradation, or loss of percent cover. We should be talking about polypcide, but before we can do that, we have to teach people what a polyp is, and try to make the life of every polyp important. I’ll address that challenge in a moment.

The coral reef story is not happening where I live

The great majority of people on this planet have never experienced a coral reef other than in an aquarium, on film, or during that one vacation afternoon when they left the swim-up bar at the hotel for a couple of hours snorkel tour over a nearby patch of reef. Of course that is true also for polar bears and pandas, but they are so obviously cuddly (not actually true) that their absence from our neighborhoods seems not to matter so much, at least for those who are environmentally attuned.

The conservation maxim – think globally, act locally – exists for a reason; we are more likely to respond to an environmental issue that exists where we live. And reefs being not in our neighborhood applies not only to those of us living outside the tropics, but to vast numbers of people who do live in the tropics, but do not dive, and for the most part do not even swim. Even artisanal fishermen, dependent on coral reefs for their livelihood, deal with them, for the most part, at arm’s length using traps, nets, dynamite or bleach to bring fish up from below to where they can grab them and get them into the boat. The coral is just ‘the place where the fishes live’.

For those of us who live thousands of kilometers away from coral reefs, the media have made it possible to learn about coral reefs, to see them, even to marvel at the colors, the movement, the sounds, and to learn some of the amazing stories of corals and the creatures that live with them. But it’s usually an intellectual or (less commonly) an artistic appreciation which is conveyed. The visceral experience of being in the water, within a reef environment, of feeling that one is a privileged visitor to this amazing natural neighborhood, with its own characters, rules, and seasonal cycles, cannot be gained from even the best nature program. In my view, the necessary emotional connection cannot happen without first having the knowledge of what this foreign ecosystem is, and how its species interact. Not only are coral reefs not in our neighborhoods; they do a damn good job of hiding their amazing qualities from the casual observer. To the uninformed, a coral reef is just another wet, underwater place, perhaps a bit more colorful than some other places. Why care if a distant piece of the sea-floor seems to be changing in ways that concern some nerdy scientists?

Disney has not yet told the reef story

Pixar almost told the reef story with Finding Nemo, and since Disney now owns Pixar, I guess Disney can claim to have that story all tied up. Only it isn’t. The corals play no part in this story. I’ve just checked back, reading a synopsis of the plot, and skimming the cast of characters, and I can confirm that in Finding Nemo, when corals appear, they are just part of the background. Sorry cnidariophiles, the corals are just the furniture. Their relatives, the jellyfishes, do play a part, but as non-speaking characters, an evil gang that preys on fishes. Even Nemo’s anemone home is just a home, not an individual.

Given that the destruction of coral reef ecosystems is primarily a case of the corals dying, making it impossible for the myriad other reef species to continue living around and amongst them, it seems to me that we have got to be able to develop a story in which corals are featured characters if the goal is to alert people to the fact that we are needlessly losing coral reefs. The alternative, to tell the story of reef loss as a story of an environmental blight (the loss of living coral) that has unfortunate consequences for the fishes or other creatures with faces, has less impact because the effects on the characters are less stark (especially for an audience that does not understand that reef fishes are tied to reefs). Maybe it could be done, but in any event, it has not been done yet.
Pandora 1280px-ImagesCA716WTB

James Cameron told a story about humanoid Na’vi living on the planet, Pandora, in a way that created emotional links; the coral reef story must be told this effectively. (Image CA716WTB.jpg at James Cameron’s Avatar Wiki)

Much as coral reef scientists or environmentalists may not want to admit it, most people are not going to be persuaded that they need to do something, personally, about the environmental crisis, if they are told a story about pretty fishes, far away, suffering the inconvenience of losing their living coral homes. On the other hand, James Cameron succeeded in making audiences care for at least one afternoon about the fate of the Na’vi living on the planet, Pandora – the Na’vi were clearly humanoid, which helps, but skilled story-tellers should be able to tell the tale of our impacts on coral reefs in a way that is effective. If that is, in fact, the story we are trying to tell.

The real story is complex; the coral reef is just a symbol

Why do we want people to know about the plight of coral reefs? Partly it is because we scientists and environmentalists have an emotional connection to these unique systems, and want to let the world know they are in trouble. Partly, and likely of greater importance, we who understand see their plight as a symbol of something far more serious, far more general – our growing impacts on the biosphere and the likely consequences of those for the quality of life of our own descendants, if not for our own lives.

Just as initiatives to save the panda, the polar bear, or the monarch butterfly are really devices to foster action to protect/preserve/sustain pieces of the natural world that will otherwise be damaged by our growing environmental footprint, the concern expressed about climate impacts on coral reefs is really an effort to gain attention, and stimulate a concerted effort to manage climate change, so that our own lives and those of future generations will be less stark than they are likely to be if we do not act.

Telling people that climate change is causing bleaching, and that bleaching is killing corals is just the beginning of a difficult story to tell. Fitting the whole story into a 140 character tweet or a 30 second elevator conversation is not going to be easy, and most of us have not progressed very far beyond that first statement: Climate change is causing bleaching which is killing off coral reefs worldwide (79 characters!). To be followed by “so what?”, or “why should I care?” from most who hear the message. Adding and we can change that helps improve receptivity (it’s not a hopeless case!), but at the expense of still more characters: Climate change is causing bleaching which is killing off coral reefs worldwide and we can change that (101 characters, 39 to go!). How can we tell the coral reef message in a way that will be truly effective? Maybe we need to start with people. Or maybe we need to rebuild our sense that we are part of the natural world and should be good stewards of it.

We need a longer form, carefully structured message

If we are going to tell the coral reef story effectively, we have got to recognize, and rise to, the challenge of doing this effectively. Here are two totally different stories that may resonate effectively with different audiences. I’m sure there are still others. Each is far more powerful than Climate change is causing bleaching which is killing off coral reefs worldwide.

1. Coral reefs tell us climate change is here:
Fully one fifth of our global population now lives within 100 km of a tropical coastline, mostly in developing countries. Many of these people are directly dependent on that coastline for their employment, much of their food, their recreation, and their quality of life. The changing climate is already having severe consequences for these people as storms intensify, sea levels rise, and coral reefs lose their capacity to provide food, drive tourism, and protect coastal communities. The extent, and pace, of change can best be seen on the reefs themselves. Worldwide, since 1982, coral reefs have experienced frequent episodes of sea surface temperatures warm enough to kill the corals. These ‘bleaching’ events are widespread and becoming more frequent as climate warms.
Kivukoni fish market Dar-es-Salaam-3

The Kivukoni fish market in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, is a hub of activity for the community. Coastal cities, towns and villages throughout the tropics retain their strong connection to their coastal waters. Photo ©

A major bleaching is underway now in the north and west Pacific, and expected to become global during 2015. It could remove as much as 15% of living coral worldwide during this year. Those losses are on top of the typically 50% loss of coral, from bleaching and other causes, that has occurred on most coral reefs since the late 1970s. These rates of loss overwhelm any capacity of corals to reproduce and grow, and coral reefs without their corals become slowly eroding limestone banks far less able to sustain fisheries or tourism, and certainly not able to grow along with rising sea level and continue to provide protection for coastal communities. Coral reefs, by bleaching, are sending us a clear message: Climate change is real, and it is here. If we value the lives of the millions of people living in coastal communities throughout the tropics, we must work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curtail climate change.

2. Our planet needs our nurturing care:
As well as being a vital ecosystem producing important goods and services for coastal populations, a flourishing coral reef is a symphony to complexity, a hymn of praise to the power of evolution to produce abundant surprises, and one of those special places that make this planet exceptional. At first sight, a coral reef can bewilder by its sheer diversity – so many different, brightly colored fishes, so many other creatures, so many shapes, sounds, and movements, so much life. With time and learning, it becomes an exuberant example of how life can evolve on this planet to yield surprisingly rich complexity of form, function, mechanism, interaction and ecological process.
Wistari patch reefs

I know of no other marine system anywhere in which the combination of physical and biological processes yields a topography as varied, on any spatial scale chosen, as is found on coral reefs. That topography is crammed with life.  Reefs really are magical places. Photo of Wistari Reef, Great Barrier Reef.

Coral reefs are the most highly productive marine ecosystem despite occurring predominantly in nutrient-poor water, the most highly diverse ecosystem for great swathes of the animal kingdom, the place where animals best reveal the variety and complexity of their interactions both within and between species. If coral reefs did not exist, we would never have imagined them. And yet, reefs are at threat. Our emissions of greenhouse gases are altering the climate in ways that make it difficult for corals to survive, and reefs without their corals are just eroding limestone benches incapable of sustaining the symphony of other reef creatures. Since 1982, coral reefs have experienced frequent episodes of sea surface temperatures warm enough to kill the corals. These ‘bleaching’ events are widespread and becoming more frequent as climate warms. A major bleaching is underway now in the north and west Pacific, and expected to become global during 2015. It could remove as much as 15% of living coral worldwide during this year. Those losses are on top of the typically 50% loss of coral, from bleaching and other causes, that has occurred on most coral reefs since the late 1970s. Reefs cannot persist with rates of loss like this, and we can stop this race to extinction by reining in our emissions. The question is, do we value the biotic exuberance that our planet is capable of producing, a richness of form and function that enhances the quality of our own lives? If we do, we know what steps we need to take.


Back to reality

Jackie Jordan, Director of Color Marketing for Sherwin-Williams has announced that their hue for 2015 will be Coral Reef.  I’d call it pink.  She describes it as vibrant, vivacious, optimistic, a nice compromise between the bravado of red and the over youthfulness of orange. It will be wonderful if we are able to orchestrate, or at least witness events during 2015 that will allow us to once again become optimistic about real coral reefs. Maybe show some vivacious bravado while shouting out the good news. It could happen if we want it badly enough. In the meantime we need to tell the coral reef story as effectively as possible.

6 thoughts on “Coral Bleaching On Again – How do we tell the story more effectively this time”

  1. Here’s an idea: start each line or Tweet with a reference to humans instead of to reefs. For example, “Children born today will witness the extinction of all coral reefs if the status quo continues.”

  2. Very well said!
    I have been working on ways to explain to the public our coral reef demise, without sounding like a dooms day profit. It is difficult to portray what some of us experienced 40-50 years ago in our first snorkel and diving experiences on coral reefs and how that now is heart wrenching to observe today, is the only way I can tell my feelings. Personally, I am working on coral restoration using newer propagation techniques that give a whole new glimmer of hope. But we still need to stop the “killing fields of CO2”.

    Great Piece
    Dave Vaughan

    1. Thanks Dave,
      My effort with Alina Szmant in 2012 to produce the Reef Reminiscences booklet was precisely to address the need to educate the younger generation of scientists about what reefs used to be. We are forgetting them as fast as we are killing them off. You can download Reef Reminiscences from this site.

  3. Another great article. There is so much more that we as the scientific community can do to get the message across in terms that the average person will understand and empathize with. Which is why I really appreciate articles like this and the Reef Reminiscences Book along side your more technical work like the “Transforming management of tropical coastal seas to cope with challenges of the 21st century” paper. I make the Reef Reminiscences book a required reading for all of the students coming into my marine conservation program. Keep up the great work.

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