Science as Inquiry
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Sadly, coral reefs are suffering the hardships of environmental stress (see CNN and USA Today articles). Average global sea temperature has been rising gradually over several decades, which is generally believed among the scientific community to be due to global warming. Coral bleaching is being widely documented, and new coral diseases are being observed. Coral bleaching occurs when the microscopic plants, or zooxanthellae, which live in coral tissue stop functioning. The zooxanthellae provide corals with color, food and most of their ability to rapidly grow skeleton. Without them, corals can die.
Corals which had thrived for hundreds of years suddenly died in 1998. It was the worst year ever recorded globally for coral bleaching, and it brought the hottest sea surface temperatures since 1982. Data collected by the Coral Health and Monitoring Program (CHAMP) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show daily and monthly sea surface temperature anomolies, as well as monthly mean sea surface temperatures for 1984-1996. Potential coral bleaching hot spots (areas where the sea surface temperature exceeds the climatological maximum for that region by 1° C or more) and retrospective animations of coral bleaching events can also be viewed.
Coral reefs exist in a geographical band 30 degrees north and south of the equator. To learn more about their plight, visit the ReefBase Database, and choose a country whose reefs are of particular interest to you. To access information from ReefBase: choose a country from the dropdown list or to view interactive maps containing coral reef information link to their Online GIS.
Look at the threats to each reef. How many of those are human threats? How many are natural threats? Many potential threats exist, including destructive fishing, anchor damage, pollution, sedimentation, bleaching, diseases, storms, and biological outbreaks. Although bleaching may be argued to be a result of human threats to the reef, these events are classified under natural threats since, more often than not, the incidents reported in the literature attribute bleaching to a natural cause (some scientists believe that higher sea temperatures could just be the result of nature's unpredictable flux).
A unique research trip to Belize, Central America will be taking place soon which will make additional real-time data available to you. A team of students and faculty from the University of New England is dedicated to finding out why coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate and reporting this information back to classrooms, with the help of the Gulf of Maine Aquarium. The students will send daily digital still photos, video clips and text via satellite phone transmission. If all goes well with the satellite phone connection, you will also be able to chat with the researchers each day as their work progresses. Check out their research topics and suggested classroom activities. Learn along the way with this online expedition!
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. Want to help reverse the trend? Here are
25 things you can do to save coral reefs.
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