Earthquakes Ravage Coral Reefs

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Coral reefs are plagued by a long list of problems that can injure the fragile ocean ecosystems: Ocean acidification due to global warming, plankton blooms, emerging diseases, pollution and overfishing. Researchers have now added one more to that list: earthquakes.

Just as earthquakes can cause devastation on the ground, they can also be catastrophic underwater, a new study has found.

In May 2009, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake hit the western Caribbean, causing avalanches in half of the lagoonal reefs in Belize studied by Richard Aronson, head of the department of biological sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology. It was, however, not the first event to wipe out large portions of the reef.

Aronson and his team have been studying the same 144-square-mile (373 square kilometers) area for more than 20 years and their data provide insight on how to better manage the world’s reefs to protect them from disasters, both natural and manmade.

“You can’t say, we can develop this coastline and leave this one area as an example of coral reef or intertidal habitat,” Aronson told OurAmazingPlanet. “Because if something bad happens, then you have nothing.”

Series of unfortunate events

The coral reefs along the shelf lagoon in Belize are estimated to be about 8,000 to 9,000 years old, based on Aronson’s work. For at least half of that time, staghorn coral dominated the mixture of coral species, until 1986, when white-band disease ripped through seas and oceans, killing many reefs. With 99 percent of the staghorn coral gone, lettuce coral came in throughout the next decade.

Then the episodic El Ni