Severe Loss Of World's Coral
And Tropical Reefs In 1998
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.