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Sculpting the Beauty and Peril of Coral Reefs

A ceramic sculptor brings ocean conservation issues to the surface.

Courtney Mattison

2015-07ArtsLabMattisonF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageTropical coral reefs have mesmerized me for as long as I can remember. I am happiest when the exotic forms, vibrant colors, and often venomous appendages of coral reef flora and fauna dance through the window of my scuba mask as I slowly hover nearby—a scene Jacques Cousteau described as “a living kaleidoscope of lilac flecks, splashes of gold, reddish streaks, and yellows, all tinged by the familiar transparent blue of the sea.” Perhaps it’s because I’m relatively small and I respect small creatures that can build big, beautiful things, but I feel that I relate to corals (arguably one of the least relatable animals) on a very deep level.

My sense of connection with corals means that I am also profoundly saddened by their demise. Our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are making seawater warmer and more acidic, two of the most devastating threats to the health of coral reefs. By now it is well known that reef-building corals offer an early warning on climate change and ocean acidification; they are so sensitive that the slightest alteration to the temperature or chemistry of the seawater that surrounds them can cause total devastation through coral bleaching, erosion, and mortality. Under the stress of warmer seawater, corals expel the colorful symbiotic dinoflagellates called Symbiodinium that live within their tissues; in turn, without the dinoflagellates’ photosynthesis to feed them, corals can starve and die. Malignant algae then smother their skeletons and prevent juvenile corals from repopulating the reef. As the ocean absorbs increasing amounts of atmospheric CO2, the concentration of carbonate ions in seawater dwindles and limits the ability of corals and other calcifying organisms to precipitate their stony skeletons and shells—a phenomenon similar to osteoporosis. Ocean acidification, which Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has called climate change’s “equally evil twin,” may exacerbate coral bleaching as well as algal domination.

Corals are so threatened by our greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and overfishing that these combined stressors will spell certain disaster for the reefs of the world unless we act now to mitigate our impacts. Leading researchers agree that without swift and effective action, reefs may cease to function as ecological cradles for marine life as soon as the end of this century.

Are coral reefs doomed to fade into oblivion or will we allow them to recover and regain their vibrancy? We won’t act unless we care, and we won’t care if we don’t know. We especially won’t care if we remain unaware of the vast resources and inherent value of reefs that make them important to every human on Earth.

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