Climate goal may spell end for reefs

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The once-vibrant coral reef shielding these sun-soaked beaches from the wrath of the sea is withering away under the stress of pollution and warmer water.

It’s not likely to get much help from world governments meeting in Cancun for talks on a new climate pact. Their so-far elusive goal to limit global warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) is too little too late, says coral expert Roberto Iglesias.

“That represents the end of the coral reefs in the world,” says the Mexican scientist, who works at a marine research station in Puerto Morelos, 12 miles (about 20 kilometers) south of the beach resort hosting the annual U.N. climate conference.

Coral reefs are like underwater jungles that host 25 percent of marine species and provide food and income to hundreds of millions of people, mostly in the developing world. They also serve as shock absorbers to storm surges whipped up by hurricanes.

But many reefs, including the one off this hotel-packed coastline, have been damaged by water pollution and overfishing, leaving them vulnerable to a warming ocean that “bleaches” corals and sometimes kills them, Iglesias said.

This year, preliminary reports show global coral bleaching reached its worst level since 1998, when 16 percent of the world’s reefs were killed off, said Mark Eakin, a coral reef specialist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Clearly, we are on track for this to be the second worst (bleaching) on record,” he said.

“All we’re waiting on now is the body count.”

The 700-mile (1,100-kilometer) Mesoamerican reef that runs along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula