From the air, the Maldives is a breath-taking vision to behold. White sand islands encircled by cerulean lagoons lie scattered in the navy sea. Delve beneath its turquoise waters and it is equally spectacular. A panoply of psychedelic fish, honeycomb moray eels, violet soldierfish and orange-striped triggerfish to name a few, flit among a treasure trove of coral.
But while the Maldives has grabbed headlines world over for being one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, fated to disappear beneath the waves if sea levels continue to rise, its underwater Shangri-La has received little press.
If the experts are right, however, the Maldives’ coral reefs are in terminal decline. A UN report entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity released last week in Berlin, stated the world’s coral infrastructure and accompanying biodiversity would be the first ecosystem to go due to climbing greenhouse gases.
The message is critical; the reality is grim. “Corals are the foundation of the whole ecosystem, the building blocks of the reef itself,” said Guy Stevens, a British marine biologist at Four Seasons resort. “If the reef went, the Maldives would cease to exist, the islands themselves would be eroded and washed away. Without them, there’s nothing.”
Anke Hofmeister, a German marine biologist at Soneva Fushi resort is similarly pessimistic. “We can always argue that the coral reefs are recovering… but there’s definitely reason to think the reefs will disappear…this is the tipping point.”
Their fear is not unfounded. Anthropogenic carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases continue to drive global warming. Add into the mix, the local hazards of overfishing, an inadequate waste management system and population expansion, and corals have little chance of survival.
The vast colonies of coral, the bedrock of the Indian Ocean archipelago, are formed by the calcium carbonate secretions of tiny creatures called polyps. Living within the polyps, microscopic algae, zooxanthellae, take carbon dioxide for photosynthesise in return for food. As corals die, their calcium exoskeletons turn to limestone providing the perfect foundation for new generations of polyps to settle.
Yet while it has taken nature millennia to create the chain of 1,192 coral islands, it has taken humankind just over a hundred years to virtually wipe it out. The country’s fragile ecosystem lies on a knife-edge as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere already exceed the safe threshold of 350 ppm.
Failure to curb emissions will condemn reefs to extinction, leading to dire economic, social and humanitarian consequences. In the Maldives, both tourism and fishing, which provides 71% of national employment and 49% of public revenue, will be hard hit. “Our whole existence, our livelihoods depends on reefs. It is a human rights issue because it will affect our right to life,” says Hussein Zahir, a senior reef ecologist at the country’s Marine Research Centre.
The loss of the Maldives’ coral ramparts will cripple the country’s ability to protect itself against extreme weather events caused by global warming. A government report estimates reefs absorb up to 90% of a wave’s force. As one of the lowest lying countries in the world, the Maldives is particularly vulnerable to waves, storm surges, cyclones and rises in sea level.
El Nino, the mass bleaching event of 1998, was the single most cataclysmic event in the history of coral degeneration in the Maldives. Up to 90% of the nation’s corals in some parts of the country were killed following the three-degree rise in ocean temperatures. Stressed out polyps evicted their colourful tenants – zooxanthellae – and were left a ghostly shade of white. For Stevens, the threat of one-off catastrophes such as El Nino pose one of the biggest threats to coral reefs.
Although a natural phenomenon, scientists predict that as sea temperatures rise, such incidents of large-scale bleaching will increase. “The frequency and magnitude are linked with global warming,” says Stevens. “As we warm up the earth, we are playing with the natural cycles, upsetting the equilibrium. Before a drought in one area of the world might result in a flood somewhere else. It was a see-sawing effect, but now there’s no balance.”
Hard on the heels of the tribulations faced by corals is another more critical threat. In June, the national science academies of 70 countries signed a statement warning that rising acidity in the world’s oceans would lead to a global catastrophe. The scientists said the oceans were more acidic than they had been for the past 800,000 years and urged ocean acidification to be put on the agenda at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December.
Oceans have absorbed around half of all carbon dioxide produced by humans since the industrial revolution, slowing global warming. But an overabundance of the greenhouse gas has tipped the balance. The resulting high levels of acidity impair the ability of some organisms to secrete calcium carbonate. This applies not only to polyps but a host of marine creatures, among them, phytoplankton – microscopic algae at the bottom of the food chain, responsible for producing half of the world’s oxygen. “It’s quite alarming if we think that it’s the base of the food chain,” says Verena Wiesbauer, a marine biologist at Water Solutions, an environmental consultancy firm in the Maldives.
A minute to midnight
Despite the doomsday scenario predicted by many scientists, marine biologists at the country’s luxury resorts are hard at work in search of stop-gap measures to buffer reefs from further climatic hardship. Coral propagation is one such technique. Fragments of coral are attached to a variety of structures from cement discs to electrified steel frames designed to encourage the birth of new colonies. The results so far have proved promising.
But while coral gardening may be an important conservation tool, most marine biologists agree it is not a large-scale solution. “There may be localised benefits from coral transplanting projects but in the long-term we need to concentrate on how to preserve what nature has given us,” says Hofmeister. “Ecosystems have been established over so many millions of years and you can’t just rebuild that.”
For now, the consensus is that coral reefs are teetering on the precipice of extinction. “It is one minute to 12,” says Wiesbauer. “The problem is that economy will always win and ecology will always lose.”
The climate change talks offer a glimmer of hope. If world leaders are able to put national interests aside and thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol then coral reefs may have a chance at survival.
Failure to commit to drastic cuts in greenhouse gases emissions will sound the death knell for coral reefs and spell the beginning of the end for other ecosystems. As a microcosm of the world, the plight of the Maldives and its fragile reef should be heeded, says Hofmeister. “We see the effects much much earlier here than other countries,” she says. “But it is only a matter of time before what happens here, happens to the rest of the world.”