Starving Our Oceans: An Aquatic Epidemic

  • Anthropogenic pollution contributing to alterations in natural ocean chemistry.
  • Corals, considered "underwater rainforests" of the sea, are undergoing bleaching and are rapidly deteriorating.
  • The diversity, abundance and hierarchy of the Marine food web are in jeopardy.
  • Coral bleaching will hinder consumer demands and adjacent industries reliant on marine provisions.

The impact of destructive anthropogenic practices are quite observable to the common population; pollution of multiple mediums, including air, water and soil, ascending sea levels, loss of various habitats ranging from woodland to arctic, jeopardized wildlife, defying and recurrent extinction, irregular weather and climate patterns, the deterioration of atmospheric layers, and increased risk of health complications due to repeated exposure to polluted environments. In no manner are these environmental issues belittled, though Mrs. Adum intends to prevail a detrimental consequence of pollution and overexploitation through a divergent perspective; an aquatic epidemic.

A Critical Career

As reflected by earlier careers, Mrs. Adum has long been acquainted with animals and complementary fields acquainted with biology and the environment. Prior to teaching, she had been employed at The Florida Aquarium, with a segment of her career spent working at Busch Gardens. She also enjoyed the privilege of engaging in an internship program at the Clear Water Marine Aquarium (with Winter the tailless Dolphin!). Her fascination with Marine life commenced in her earlier years when she paid her first visit to SeaWorld,

“Seeing the way the trainers interacted, specifically with the orcas (Shamu), I knew I wanted to do something related to the ocean and its magnificent creatures.”

With a degree in Biology and a focus on Marine science, Mrs. Adum approaches her fourth year as a teacher at Freedom High school,

“My goal is to show my students an appreciation for the ocean and make them aware of how their interactions with it can be both positive and negative!”

Though global warming and climate change are no unanticipated concepts, many are dumbfounded before the debut of detrimental factors as well as the proximity of correlation(s), “The most shocking things my students find are things like: all drains “lead” to the ocean…”, observes Mrs. Adum, “…all water is connected, so just because something happens in the Gulf doesn’t mean it won’t affect the waters in Africa!”

Ocean Chemistry

A coral reef is an underwater ecosystem characterized by reef-building corals. Reefs are formed of colonies of coral polyps held together by calcium carbonate. Most coral reefs are built from stony corals, whose polyps cluster in groups.

The ocean, containing 97% of global water supply, resembles a “buffer” as it absorbs a significant amount of heat from the atmosphere and subdues temperatures. With a large surface area, about 30% of gas pollutants exposed to the atmosphere are absorbed by the vast ocean. One of the utmost destructive and conspicuous of pollutants absorbed is carbon dioxide.

“The main threats to corals are global warming, fertilizer runoff, and ocean acidification…Global warming does two things: 1.It causes thermal expansion (as water heats up-specifically glaciers in the poles-it expands and melts). This increases our water level, which in turn, raises the ocean level in all areas since they are all connected. 2. The cars, fossil fuels, etc. we use on a daily basis release an excess of carbon dioxide. The oceans absorb that excess carbon dioxide and it mixes with the ions in the water to form carbonic acid.”

The formation of carbonic acid significantly decreases the PH levels of the oceans. Once the substance is formed, it permanently resides in the oceans. Alteration of natural ocean chemistry is a threat to calcifying organisms, “This [carbonic acid] is an acid, just like vinegar, which dissolves shells and coral skeletons,” explains Mrs. Adum, “Animals can no longer build shells or skeletons and therefore, begin to die.”

Nutrient enrichment of nitrogen and phosphorus through fertilizer runoff and atmospheric deposition feed pathogens harmful to coral reefs, making corals, symbiotic organisms and reliant species more susceptible to diseases (Vega-Thurber, Rebecca. “Large study shows pollution impact on coral reefs-and offers solution”).

Coral Bleaching

Corals require an environment of shallow waters (corals typically reside in the photic zone so that sunlight is accessible for indirect photosynthesis, though proximity to the surface makes them more vulnerable to temperature changes), gentle ambient movement, uncontaminated and transparent waters, salinity levels (salt concentration) with a short range ideally between 1.024-1.025 (32-33ppt), temperatures between 68-900 F or 20-320 C (“What Do Corals Need to Survive?”), and nearly basic PH levels ideally between 8.2-8.5. In the past two centuries, oceans have exhibited a 25% increase in acidity with PH levels, ‘“…lower than any time in the last 2 million years”’ (Short, Julia. “Ocean acidification to hit levels not seen in 14 million years”), and as an abused buffer, mean global ocean temperatures are predicted to increase by 33-390 F (1-40 C) by the year 2100 (“Ocean Warming”). Corals are more prone to bleaching in areas of elevated temperatures, as “A small positive anomaly of 1-2 degrees C for 5-10 weeks during the summer season will usually induce bleaching” (Buccheim, Jason. “Coral Reef Bleaching”).

Coral reef locations. Often called “rainforests of the sea”, shallow coral reefs form some of Earth’s most diverse ecosystems. They occupy less than 0.1% of the world’s ocean area, about half the area of France, yet they provide a home for at least 25% of all marine species, including fish, mollusks, worms, crustaceans, echinoderms, sponges, tunicates and other cnidarians. Coral reefs flourish in ocean waters that provide few nutrients. They are most commonly found at shallow depths in tropical waters, but deep water and cold water coral reefs exist on smaller scales in other areas.

Unlike plants, corals are incapable of independent photosynthesis, and rely on mutualism with a photosynthetic alga known as zooxanthella (zoh-uh-zan-thel-uh) for nutrition. The byproducts of this photosynthesis are fed to the building blocks of corals, polyps, which eventually bud, divide, and attach to one another to form corals and reefs. Polyps are naturally white, and receive pigmentation from zooxanthellae which produce vibrant, diverse colors. A polyp, “…uses calcium and carbonate ions from seawater to build itself a hard, cup-shaped skeleton made of calcium carbonate (limestone). This limestone skeleton protects the soft, delicate body of the polyp” (“Coral Polyps-Tiny Builders”) and “When the coral cannot build their skeleton, or get sick and “bleach”, they are under stress just like when you and I have a compromised immune system and then get a cold”, compares Mrs. Adum, “Eventually, they get sick and die.”

Chemicals exposed to the atmosphere, particularly chlorine and bromine, deteriorate ozone molecules, resulting in excessive exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation which increases global temperatures. With increased temperature, dissolved oxygen in waters necessary for the formation of calcium carbonate decreases, a process known as deoxygenation, which weakens the structure of corals. Bleaching is considered a stress response, and is accompanied by the expulsion of algae associated with discoloration as the corals are deprived of their primary source of nutrients. Corals then become malnourished, lose pigmentation, dwindle in structure and fall more susceptible to diseases and probable, adverse factors. Acidification further deteriorates and dissolves corals and structures also composed of calcium carbonate, such as sea shells. Rising acidity levels have also inhibited reproduction of vulnerable marine organisms.

The Relevance and Deterioration of Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are often referred to as underwater rainforests, as about 25% of marine life rely on its ecosystem. Reefs provide shelter and nutrients, unify various marine organisms through symbiosis, and hold significance within the marine food chain by influencing and maintaining appropriate hierarchy while stimulating biodiversity.

As some reefs, depending on location, environmental metrics, adaptation, and genotypic and phenotypic plasticity, exhibit resilience as The Australian Great Barrier Reef, where “…as their [corals] natural environment changes, the corals will expel their current symbiotic algae and repopulate with a more suitable species” (May, Andy. “Coral reefs, Temperature and Ocean PH”), meaning the ability to recover and adapt, the rate at which chemical and physical aquatic changes are proceeding leave little time for adaptation, given the unparalleled rate at which corals grow, “While this is ‘“normal”’ to some degree, most corals are bleaching at a rapid rate-hundreds of miles of coral dead within a month”, refutes Mrs. Adum, “These are the same corals that take 50-100 years to grow because most only grow about 0.5-1cm a year!” The bereavement of reefs means the dissociation of marine communities and death of adjacent species. The deprivation of nutrients, lack of shelter, and perturbed hierarchy places a quarter of marine life in jeopardy. The oceans are practically undergoing starvation.

Anthropogenic Consequences

The coral bleaching epidemic, primarily impacted by unnatural, anthropogenic activities, have direct social and economic implications,

“Diving is a social and economic resource”, implies Mrs. Adum, “Billions of dollars are spent on tourism: snorkeling, feeding sharks, night diving, etc. Without reefs, beaches, resorts, and restaurants will all suffer. Who wants to swim in an ocean with nothing to look at? Fishing is also a huge industry. Think of all the trade, commerce, and money involved in catching and selling fish. Most fish species spend part of their life, if not all of it, on a coral reef! There is no question, especially in Florida, we will be negatively impacted when the corals disappear.”

When alive, corals are colonies of small animals embedded in calcium carbonate shells. Coral heads consist of accumulations of individual animals called polyps, arranged in diverse shapes. Polyps are usually tiny, but they can range in size from a pinhead to 12 inches (30 cm) across. Reef-building or hermatypic corals live only in the photic zone (above 50 m), the depth to which sufficient sunlight penetrates the water.

21st century America and coinciding countries thrive off the materialism reflected in present cultures, producing various dispensable, extraneous products and services with a variety of non-biodegradable materials via efficient, convenient, and cost-effective methods in terms of business mobility which tend to be environmentally destructive, “I feel the oil industry (and the main cause of global warming) is too much of a money maker to have politicians try to move to another sustainable resource”, claims Mrs. Adum, “It’s simply too common and lucrative a market to promote any real change at this time.”  Accustomed to convenience, it becomes burdensome to commit to alternatives at the expense of personal, efficient advantages. However, at this period of time, no individual is morally entitled to such luxuries,

“Even if significant sea warming and elevated irradiance levels do not occur, coral reef degradation from anthropogenic pollution and overexploitation will still continue, a result of unrelenting human population growth.” (Buccheim, Jason. “Coral reef Bleaching”).

Approximately 80-90% of corals in Florida have perished. At the rate of pollution and exploitation, the adjacency of consequences are quite evident, and Mrs. Adum doubts the future of marine enterprise,

“I got my diving certification and dove the Florida Keys and saw first-hand how bad the coral bleaching is, specifically in our state. After diving the reefs of Roatán Honduras, it deeply saddens me to think that those reefs I love so much could be completely gone one day. The feeling of jumping out of a boat to be inundated with a huge luscious garden of corals… it’s breathtaking, awe-inspiring, and makes you realize how small you really are. To think that could be-will be-gone one day. It is simply devastating… At the rate we are going, my son will be lucky to see a full coral reef by the time he can dive at age 15.”

In terms of alleviating the aquatic, global dilemma, Mrs. Adum accentuates the significance of awareness and education, “The best thing a person can do is be educated… If you don’t know about something, you simply cannot care about it.”

Converting to renewable and cleaner sources of energy (wind, solar, and electric), replacing products with biodegradable alternatives when possible to reduce waste and Co2 emissions, decreasing usage of chemical-dense products in exchange for natural, supplementary goods, moderately consuming resources, implementing zero-waste objectives and recycling are measures which may be easily executed by communities. Financially supporting marine organizations, foundations and charities will also aid in research studies, wildlife preservation, and community and Government intervention. Commitment, even to the slightest degree, is imperative to the future of Marine life. By the overexploitation of provisions and negligence of transgression, it is the very least jeopardized nature may request.

“We cannot prevent what we have already done, but we can prevent further destruction”, reassures Mrs. Adum, “Just don’t do nothing, I guess that’s the takeaway. Don’t. Do. Nothing.

Recommended Sources:

“Chasing Coral” documentary
“Racing Extinction” documentary
Real-time coral data


Buccheim, Jason. “Coral reef Bleaching”. Odyssey Expeditions. 2013. Web. January 6th, 2019
“Coral Polyps-Tiny Builders”. Coral Reef Alliance. 2018. Web. January 5th, 2019
May, Andy. “Coral reefs, Temperature and Ocean PH”. Andy May Petrophysicist. Petrophysics, Climate Change and Photography. Web. January 6th, 2019
“Ocean Warming”. IUCN Issues Brief. Web. January 6th, 2019
Short, Julia. “Ocean acidification to hit levels not seen in 14 million years”. Earth and Planetary Science letters. Cardiff University. July 23rd, 2018. Web. January 6th, 2019
“What Do Corals Need to Survive?” Coral Reef Alliance. 2018. Web. January 6th, 2019
Vega-Thurber, Rebecca. “Large study shows pollution impact on coral reefs-and offers solution”. Oregon State University. November 25th, 2013. Web. January 6th, 2019.

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Hanan Hasan

A student dedicated to the distribution of knowledge.

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