During my six years with UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme, I have had the privilege of visiting some of the world’s most beloved ocean places, including Gulf of California, Lagoons of New Caledonia, Belize Barrier Reef, Coiba National Park, Tubbataha Reefs, and the Great Barrier Reef. Field visits are integral to our work, as we are constantly trying to understand the health of these rare places, and forge solutions with local and national governments.
I have had the opportunity to explore thriving coral reefs, treasure troves full of life and breathtaking beauty and color — unlike anything else I’ve experienced. But like many of us, I have also watched with growing unease how the devastating heat wave that gripped the world’s oceans over the past three years wrought havoc in 21 out of the 29 globally-significant reefs on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Many World Heritage-listed reefs, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or Phoenix Islands protected Area in Kiribati, have been working hard to reduce pollution and other stressors and boost resilience. But the record-breaking bleaching event that stretched from 2014 to last month made it clear that local management is no longer sufficient to protect these iconic rainforests of the sea. We are facing a global problem that demands global solutions.
Last month, UNESCO released the first global scientific assessment of climate change impacts on World Heritage coral reefs. While international media has regularly reported on bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef, we knew that was just the tip of the iceberg. The El Nino and climate-fueled temperature spikes that were wiping out corals in Australia were also causing serious damage to reefs in Costa Rica, Mexico, France, the United States, the Philippines, and the Seychelles. And that is just the beginning of the story.
It only takes a spike of 1 to 2 degrees to threaten the health of coral reefs. As seawater heats up, coral animals expel the microscopic algae they rely on for energy. If heat stress lasts too long, and corals don’t reabsorb the algae, they can die. Reefs can recover from bleaching, but it takes 15 to 25 years, and with climate change causing more frequent heat waves, we are approaching the breaking point of these fragile systems.
The global surface temperature is now already up 1°C since pre-Industrial times, and recent El Nino and La Nina events have magnified this effect. The global bleaching event that just ended impacted 72 percent of World Heritage coral reefs, including some of the world’s best-managed reef systems as well as remote sites like Papahānamokuākea (U.S.) and Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles) that are isolated from most human pressures.
Our job at the World Heritage Centre is to support the conservation of World Heritage listed global ocean treasures, and coral bleaching is clearly among the most formidable threats we have faced. In order to understand the scope and severity of the threat, we enlisted the help of international experts from NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch. We used satellite data to analyze past bleaching, and examined two future scenarios to predict how World Heritage reefs will fare based on global carbon emission reduction.
If we don’t dramatically reduce carbon emissions, we could lose every one of the 29 coral reefs on the World Heritage List, devastating the vibrant ecosystems they support, and the human communities that rely on them for food, jobs and flood protection.
The results, detailed in our new report, were sobering. The frequency, intensity and duration of heat stress events has increased with global warming, and we are at a tipping point: if we don’t dramatically reduce carbon emissions, we could lose every one of the 29 coral reefs on the World Heritage List, devastating the vibrant ecosystems they support, and the human communities that rely on them for food, jobs and flood protection.
We could see severe bleaching hit icons like the Galápagos Islands and Komodo National Park again within the next five years if emissions continue to climb. Business as usual would cause 25 of the 29 World Heritage reefs to bleach twice per decade by 2040, and all 29 to bleach yearly by the year 2100, meaning they would cease to exist as functioning coral reef systems by the end of this century.
If emissions peak in 2040 and then decline, science predicts we will still see widespread devastation. Under this scenario, 14 of 29 World Heritage reefs would bleach twice per decade by 2040, and all but two would bleach annually by 2100. Warming of 1.5°C is recognized by many scientists as the maximum for coral reef survival, and our research bore this out. Clearly, implementation of the most ambitious target of the Paris Climate Agreement is absolutely essential. Protecting World Heritage reefs will require complementary national and global efforts.
The assessment was launched ahead of the 41st Session in Krakow, Poland, where the World Heritage Committee expressed the utmost concern about the serious damage World Heritage coral reefs have already sustained due to climate change, and the devastating impacts projected in our new report. The Committee took a strong stance urging State Parties to ratify and uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, and strive to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-Industrial levels. Nations around the world are bound by the 1972 World Heritage Convention to support the survival of our shared heritage, and are being called now to fulfill that commitment by taking the collective action required to save the world’s coral reefs, and the lives and livelihoods they support. A request was also made to revise the official World Heritage policy on climate change. These are important first steps that will inspire our work as we forge a way forward in months and years ahead toward securing a better future for our common heritage of humankind.