- WAILEA, Hawaii (CNN) -- Many tropical reefs, already stressed by a modest,
gradual rise in ocean temperatures worldwide, took a knockout punch last
year from the sudden and dramatic water-temperature rise from El Niño,
according to a new U.S. State Department report.
- The report released Friday said the decline
of the world's coral reefs accelerated sharply in 1998.
- In a year when tropical ocean surface
temperatures were at an all-time high, "Coral reefs around the world
appear to have suffered the most extensive and severe bleaching and subsequent
mortality in modern record," the report concludes.
- Coral reefs are considered to be the
key to tropical ocean ecosystems, and marine scientists warn that their
decline could be a prelude to widespread ecological damage.
- The organisms that build the delicate
coral structures are extremely sensitive to even modest changes in water
temperature. Ocean surface temperatures have been on a gradual increase
for several decades.
- But temperature swings in the tropical
Pacific, epicenter for El Niño's weather impact, have been as high
as 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the past year.
- Rafe Pomerance, U.S. Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State for Environment and Development, said the report confirms
warnings first issued in the 1970s that coral reefs would suffer dramatic
losses due to water temperature change.
- The report, presented by Pomerance to
the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force conference in Maui, Hawaii, linked the gradual
warming trend to human-induced climate change.
- Some scientists dispute the link between
warming seas and human activity, but a panel of 2,500 climate scientists
issued a 1995 report predicting an increase of three to seven degrees F
temperature rise and up to three feet in sea level rise in the next century.
- In addition to their ecological value,
coral reefs' bright colors and exotic forms have spawned a tourist industry
in many tropical locations. The report said that increasing coral die-off
could threaten a worldwide multi-billion dollar fishing, tourism, and diving
industry. Reefs also provide a measure of storm protection for many tropical
ports, absorbing the impact of high waves.