(CN) — Planet Earth has lost 14% of its coral reefs in a decade primarily as a result of human-caused climate change, according to a major international report released Tuesday.
The Global Reef Monitoring Network collected data from more than 300 scientists from 73 countries to conclude that warming ocean waters have caused the loss of 7,200 square miles of coral reefs from 2009 through 2018. The decrease is equal to more than all of the reefs in Australia including the Great Barrier Reef.
“Coral reefs occur in more than 100 countries and territories and while they cover only 0.2% of the seafloor, they support at least 25% of marine species and underpin the safety, coastal protection, well-being, food and economic security of hundreds of millions of people,” the report states.
Due to coral reefs’ ability to provide quality habitat for a large and diverse segment of marine life, the underwater ecosystems are also important to a swath of industries vital to coastal communities, from fishing to recreation.
The report says coastal reefs account for $2.7 trillion annually in goods and services throughout the world, including about $36 billion in tourism and recreation.
About 6 million people rely on the reefs for fishing, providing an annual yield of 1.42 million tons.
Coral reefs are also some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, providing habitat for more than a quarter of all marine life in the ocean, the report states.
But the report, while raising the alarm about the threats presented by rising ocean temperatures, also provided cause for optimism, noting that reefs are remarkably resilient and able to recover quickly in the absence of large-scale disturbances.
In 1998, for example, there was massive bleaching of the reefs in and around Micronesia due to the oscillations of oceanic temperatures, but the reef had returned to its pre-1998 levels within a decade.
“If we halt and reverse ocean warming through global cooperation, we give coral reefs a chance to come back from the brink,” the report states. “It will, however, take nothing less than ambitious, immediate and well-funded climate and ocean action to save the world's coral reefs.”
Bleaching is a condition where the reefs release their colorful micro-algae, typically because water temperature grows too warm, according to scientists. Some reefs tend to glow a neon color before they shed the algae.
“Bleaching can be thought of as the ocean’s version of the ‘canary in the coral mine’ since it demonstrates corals’ sensitivity to dangerous and deadly conditions,” the study says.
The trend of declining coral reef habitat is particularly pronounced in South Asia but is also widespread in reefs throughout the globe.
While the most practical method of reversing the trend centers on addressing climate change, including decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the United Nations and other nations affiliated with the monitoring project argue conservation of coastal areas is also critical.
For instance, the creation of the Chumbe Island Coral Park off the coast of Zanzibar led to a 75% increase of coral reefs from the time it was created in 1994 until it was measured in 2015.
There are more than 900 species of coral, some of which are more resistant to warming temperatures and better able to bounce back from bleaching events.