The Chagos Archipelago is one of the most remote, seemingly idyllic places on Earth. Coconut-covered sandy beaches with incredible bird life rim tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles from any continent. Just below the waves, coral reefs stretch for miles along an underwater mountain chain.
It’s a paradise. At least it was before the heat wave.
When I first explored the Chagos Archipelago 15 years ago, the underwater view was incredible. Schools of brilliantly colored fish in blues, yellows and oranges darted among the corals of a vast, healthy reef system. Sharks and other large predators swam overhead. Because the archipelago is so remote and sits in one of the largest marine protected areas on the planet, it has been sheltered from industrial fishing fleets and other activities that can harm the coastal environment.
As the water temperature rose, the corals began to bleach. To the untrained eye, the scene would have looked fantastic. When the water heats up, corals become stressed and they expel the tiny algae called dinoflagellates that live in their tissue. Bleaching isn’t as simple as going from a living coral to a bleached white one, though. After they expel the algae, the corals turn fluorescent pinks and blues and yellows as they produce chemicals to protect themselves from the Sun’s harmful rays. The entire reef was turning psychedelic colors.
That explosion of color is rare, and it doesn’t last long. Over the following week, we watched the corals turn white and start to die. It wasn’t just small pieces of the reef that were bleaching – it was happening across hundreds of square miles.
What most people think of as a coral is actually many tiny colonial polyps that build calcium carbonate skeletons. With their algae gone, the coral polyps could still feed by plucking morsels out of the water, but their metabolism slows without the algae, which provide more nutrients through photosynthesis. They were left desperately weakened and more vulnerable to diseases. We could see diseases taking hold, and that’s what finished them off.
We were witnessing the death of a reef.
During a 2015 heat wave, scientists watched as a coral reef died before their eyes. By the end of the century, almost all the world’s corals will be gone if climate change continues at this pace.
Rising temperatures increase the heat wave risk
The devastation of the Chagos Reef wasn’t happening in isolation.
Corals can become stressed when temperatures around them rise just 1 C (1.8 F) above their tolerance level. With water temperature elevated from global warming, even a minor heat wave can become devastating.
These events and rising global temperatures are why the International Coral Reef Society, which represents thousands of coral scientists, issued an urgent call to governments on July 20, 2021, to do more to protect coral reefs. As part of its report on the state of the world’s reefs, it listed ways to help reefs survive, including investing in conservation, management and restoration; committing to slow climate change, reduce pollution and stop overfishing; and supporting efforts to help corals adapt to warming waters. With swift action to slow climate change, the group writes, about 30% of reefs could survive the century; if global temperatures rise by 2 C (3.6 F) or more, only about 1% will still exist. At stake is an estimated US$10 trillion in annual economic value and coastline protection.
Where we saw signs of hope
During the Global Reef Expedition, we visited over 1,000 reefs around the world. Our mission was to conduct standardized surveys to assess the state of the reefs and map the reefs in detail so scientists could document and hopefully respond to changes in the future. With that knowledge, countries can plan more effectively to protect the reefs, important national resources, providing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in economic value while also protecting coastlines from waves and storms.
Some reefs are able to survive heat waves better than others. Cooler, stronger currents, and even storms and cloudier areas can help prevent heat building up. But the global trend is not promising. The world has already lost 30% to 50% of its reefs in the last 40 years, and scientists have warned that most of the remaining reefs could be gone within decades.
Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine. Humans have collapsed other ecosystems before through overfishing, overhunting and development, but this is the first unequivocally tied to climate change. It’s a harbinger of what can happen to other ecosystems as they reach their survival thresholds.