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Kiritimati’s corals are dying

Kiritimati is one of the world’s largest coral islands, located near the centre of the Pacific Ocean and part of the island nation of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands). It is also one of the Line Islands, which is one of the world’s longest island chains. The name Kiritimati is a re-spelling of Christmas, which was the name given to the island by Captain James Cook when he landed there on Christmas Eve in 1777, although he was not the first European to discover it.

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Despite being created from coral, the phenomenon known as coral bleaching threatens the future of the island in terms of its ecology and economy. It has been estimated that 95% of its coral reefs may die within the next few years, and it could take decades for them to recover, if they ever do. A recent survey has shown that 80% of the giant table-top corals around the island are already dead and another 15% are dying.

The problem is that rapid increases in water temperature cause the tiny algae that nourish coral and give it its colour to be expelled, leaving behind ghostly white skeletons that are subject to disease and erosion. The algae are at the base of the food chain of a coral reef, so without them there are no fish, which are unable to escape to other islands because of Kiritimati’s remoteness. Without the fish, there is no livelihood for the human population of the island.

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At the heart of the problem is the El Nino phenomenon, which is a periodic shifting of warm water within the Pacific Ocean that has worldwide consequences for weather patterns. El Nino events have been known about for centuries and can be expected every three to seven years, but their intensity has been increasing in recent decades, with global warming being a prime suspect. The warming of the ocean around Kiritimati, for example, has been measured at around 3.5⁰C.

Short-term rises in water temperature can lead to the temporary bleaching of coral, from which a relatively rapid recovery can be expected as things return to normal in non-El Nino years. However, it is expected that future El Ninos will be more intense and more frequent, which means that coral reefs will find it very hard to recover.

Coral bleaching is a worldwide phenomenon, with the Caribbean being another region that has suffered badly. However, the problem at Kiritimati is particularly bad and few scientists are optimistic about its prospects if ocean temperatures continue to rise, as seems likely given current trends.

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  1. Every few years there are warnings that the coral reefs are going to die off but the reefs continue to outlive the prophets of doom. Earth goes through warm and cool periods. The period between 900 and 1200 AD was much warmer than now yet somehow the corals, and everything else, managed to survive.




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        • And it is quite likely that the corals that were subject to those warnings were indeed dead within five years. The current scale of damage to corals is beyond doubt and is extremely worrying – in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, for example, 93% of the corals show evidence of bleaching, and of more than 500 reefs in the Northern section, more than 80% have been severely bleached and are not expected to survive.

          One problem with trying to convince people about the severity of the problem is that climate change is extremely complex and warming effects are not the same across the globe. If I say “there is a terrible problem in place A” and someone counters this with “there’s no problem in place B”, that does not mean that there is not a problem – merely that it has manifested itself first in place A and will probably show up in B some time later!




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  2. it is really unfortunate that current leadership in the United States has decided to cease cooperating with the international community in addressing the problem of climate change. So much damage has been done and so little time exists to reverse it. Hopefully the American people will show the political will to effect a reversal of that policy in the coming years.




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