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White Syndrome: Mysterious Blight Threatens Coral Reefs

Climate change is real.


Okay, now that all the climate change deniers have angrily closed this link, let us proceed…

As I was saying, climate change is not something our great-grandchildren are gonna have to deal with long after we kick the can. It is happening right now as I’m typing this and you’re reading this article. One of the consequences in the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the acidification of the oceans, which is proving to have devastating consequences to the balance of precious underwater ecosystems. Photosynthetic algae and seagrasses bloom with a lower ph level in the water, and jellyfishes are also increasing their numbers at a higher rate; but the coral reefs depend on the calcium carbonate concentration that is now impeded to form due to the excess of CO2 absorbed by the oceans, and without their protective exoskeletons these colonies of invertebrates will not be able to sustain countless marine species that live in symbiosis with the corals.

According to atmospheric scientist Dr. Ken Caldeira, “There is at least a reasonable expectation that if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, corals will not survive this century.” Already half of the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world, is reported to be dead due to ‘bleaching’ which usually occurs when the water turns too warm and the coral expels the single-cell algae they nourish from.

Effects of bleaching

But now, on top of ocean acidification and bleaching, comes a third new threat to the corals of the world: On March 27th the Mexican newspaper Reforma published an article reporting on a mysterious illness that was rapidly killing the corals inhabiting the Quintana Roo barrier reef –the second biggest reef system in the world. The cause of the illness is still unknown, which is why the scientists currently refer to it as “the white syndrome.”

“The living tissue in the corals is dying, the colonies are dying,” were the words of María del Carmen García Rivas (Director of the Arrecife de Puerto Morelos national park, one of the most impacted sites) to the Reforma reporters.In four months we have lost more than 30% of the coral reefs in Quintana Roo” [emphasis mine].

Coral afflicted with the “white syndrome” disease

The new disease was discovered just last Summer by investigators from the National University (UNAM), the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONAMP) and the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People organization.  

According to their study, the affected corals show lesions that radiate from the edges, and the affected tissue can be easily torn, living the skeleton fully exposed. Once the disease is contracted, it is only a matter of weeks until the coral dies.

The experts are worried, because the white syndrome can rapidly kill cold-water coral systems that can live up to 500 years in the deeper parts of the ocean, and grow up to ten feet in height. According to Lorenzo Alvarez, a UNAM investigator, the white syndrome has been detected in reefs found at several spots across the Mayan peninsula, including the border with Belize.

I’m obviously not an environmental expert, but this to me sounds just as bad as the decline in the populations of pollinating bees, only people will take longer to notice it –or even care– because it’s happening below water and out of sight. And when we finally do start to pay attention, it may already be too late.

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