There is nothing worse than someone in my household coming down with a virus. It means that, not only will I be on nursing duty for a couple of days with my patient, but my nursing tour of duty will be extended for at least a week as everyone else goes down like dominoes, contracting the sickness. It’s almost impossible to live in the same household and not catch something that is contagious. And, by the time I have gotten everyone back on their feet, I’ll be sick with the same virus. Can you imagine a single virus epidemic with the entire population of the world all getting sick at the same time?
Well, in a way that could be happening within the oceans of our world. The oceans, and the different species of life within them, are all interconnected and interdependent. If one part becomes sick, eventually all the oceans are affected. Especially if that sick part is a critical and large element of the oceans.
The largest system of coral reefs in the entire world is the Great Barrier Reef and it has gotten sick. Scientists are blaming El Nino, which is caused by climate change, thus climate change has sickened this critical underwater ecosystem.
The reef is experiencing what is known as a “bleaching event”. This happens when coral becomes stressed and sheds the photosynthetic algae. That is the outer covering that is colorful. And this viral infection is spreading throughout the reef.
Viruses within living coral is nothing new. However, the nature of this viral infection is so catastrophic scientists are anticipating irreversible, widespread damage. They have created a fifteen year timeline to reverse the course of this infection.
If you are wondering what were the exact climate change stressors that triggered this, laboratory research has determined these were the precursors which led to the viral bleaching infection:
- Higher than normal water temperatures
- Exposure to more intense ultraviolet light
- Heavier than normal rainfall
When the bleaching reaction occurs, the coral then tests positive for high levels of non-infectious viral by-products. When these particles are examined researchers could determine the bleaching event is being caused by several different types of viruses, including retroviruses and megaviruses. However, although the viruses involved could be typed, they could not be identified as any specific known virus. That could mean a new virus, currently unknown to science, has infected the oceans of the world. The current virus level detected within the Great Barrier Reef is almost four times higher than ever recorded before. This is an historical event.
The changes that are taking place within the oceans as climate change causes warming are making coral vulnerable to the risk of viral infection. The worst part of the news is that the Great Barrier Reef is protected and considered a “pristine” coral ecosystem. However, there is no protection from the effects of climate change. And the Great Barrier Reef is not the only coral reef system that is affected. These bleaching events are taking place within the ocean all over the world.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) believes that the warming of the world’s oceans is the direct cause of the reef’s infection. According to their research, they believe this is the third time the world has undergone such a massive coral bleaching infection. Because the exact identity of the viruses are unknown, the extent of the damage cannot be accurately predicted. But, they are certain of one thing, this is a dangerous event for the stability of Earth’s oceans.
If the bleaching event continues, if the stressors continue, eventually the bleaching coral will die. In 2005 half of the Caribbean coral reefs in the area of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were lost within one year. This single event was a greater loss than all the coral loss that had occurred over the previous twenty years. If radical action is not taken quickly, scientists believe the damage will reach a tipping point with the Great Barrier Reef and it will become irreversible. Mankind could lose this incredible watery wonder.
The world has got to take climate change seriously. With the climate change accord reached in Paris last year, there is hope. The world has got to find an alternative to replace dependency on fossil fuels. That is the largest human produced contributor to carbon emissions that is accelerating the effects of climate change. Because of mankind’s contribution, what would have been a natural climate cycle has been accelerated and intensified to the point of, rather than just being transformative, is now potentially catastrophic. And, the ocean’s coral is trying to tell everyone our planet is very sick.