Running out of air

For the uninitiated, here’s a wake-up call, while we still breathe easy and free. We are headed for a calamity of our own doing, but we shamelessly remain oblivious. Our planet’s lungs, our coral reefs, are dying, and they shall take our breath away, and in not so good a manner. We can’t even begin to comprehend what is coming

Running out of air

As a creed, a race and a species, human beings are dying and pretty much close to extinction. This is not an end-game, fatalist syndrome or crazy narrative, but the impending truth. The stark picture is that forget acknowledging and accepting this grim reality, we are not even aware of it, let alone preparing for it. Till a few months back, I wasn't either, but that doesn't make this sobering truth go away, or any less true and fatal. Equally ironical is that when this happens (when, not if), and it will come to us soon enough, the planet shall probably thrive and recoup, for rid of us uncaring, abusive and polluting humans, it surely shall and will.

Today, we belch and vomit COVID-19 (which has been around for about a year) and run helter-skelter and amok, scared and pusillanimous. But we have forgotten a truth that is much more home-bound – for the last century, that mankind has been the real virus and scourge for this here planet Earth. We are quietly but knowingly killing our own future, seemingly finding a vile and mirthless pleasure in doing so, living only for today, not bothering about tomorrow or future generations.

Welcome to progressive people like me and you. With some money in the bank, an early retirement plan, easy living in cooler hilly climes, we are planning to enjoy delectable sunrises, siestas, perhaps even some fiestas, and eventually make a quiet descent into the dusk. What a blissful plan!

But life ain't easy

It surely is not. And nature is not forgiving us or lacking in memory either. Last week, I discovered on the Internet that coral reefs provide us with around 70 per cent of the oxygen that we breathe and absorb over 28 per cent of the carbon-dioxide that the world exhales. I thought trees were our real harbingers of oxygen and the true disseminators of carbon-dioxide. Mere karta dharta. I was terribly wrong.

Rainforests around the world, including in the Amazon (not yet belonging to Jeff Bezos) are responsible for only one-third (28 per cent, to be exact) of the Earth's oxygen, while almost 70 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by coral reefs and marine plants. The remaining 2 per cent of our oxygen in the air comes from other sources. And we are killing these sources. We are killing ourselves.

That's because experts predict that coral reefs would be all but extinct by 2050. In fact, a recent BBC report even suggested 2046 as the expiry date. So, take a breath while you can – 70 per cent of the world's oxygen shall be gone in 25 years, perhaps.

Truly, mankind is the ultimate ruler of Planet Earth. What a ruler…

Not going to work

It's all beginning to go awry now, and here's why. Over the years, we have lined our oceans with underwater plastics and very unthinkingly decimating marine life. We were given so much and we wasted it all, neglecting it for an imaginary world of over-abundance. I shan't take names of Corporate entities, for we all anyway know who created devastating oil spills and spawned aquatic disasters, with sharks, swans, ducks, tortoises and porpoises struggling to spread their appendages and take to the air or land, or the depths of the ocean. Some companies paid billions of dollars in damages in the early 90s.

But that is not saving our marine life. Nor is it going to save you, or me. Remember Jaws, the movie, or the sequels? Well, watch them soon because sharks are now the most endangered marine species in the world today. In case you didn't know, they are almost gone. Who did this to them? Well, I did and so did you.

Overfishing was always a big threat to sharks, and more than 100 million are killed every year, with a large number being caught for their fins. But scientists say the finning trade means the issue of overfishing is being overlooked. Apparently, sharks are also caught for their meat, liver oil, cartilage, leather and their teeth. As a people, we surely have an appetite. Chicken, sheep and cattle aren't enough.

Mantle to survive

So where are the greatest corals in the world – in the Great Barrier Coral Reefs, Australia, the most intricate and complex connections between thousands of different life-forms that represent the most diverse ecosystem on the planet. And luckily, some people are intervening. They are diving daily, attempting to minimize water runoff by planting trees, garden beds and ground cover around homes in the country. They are also using re-useable shopping bags and shunning plastic.

Corals comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis (you scratch my back and I shall scratch yours), that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, and do not make their own food, as plants do. Coral reefs begin to form when free-swimming coral larvae attach to submerged rocks or other hard surfaces along the edges of islands or continents.

As the corals grow and expand, reefs typically take on three structures – fringing, barrier or atoll. To explain, they are invertebrates belonging to a large group of colorful and fascinating animals called 'Cnidaria' – each individual coral animal is called a 'polyp', and most live in groups of hundreds to thousands of genetically identical polyps, forming a 'colony'.

To explain, as coral reefs around the world dither, ether and die, coastlines will become increasingly susceptible to damage and flooding from storms, hurricanes and cyclones. Without coral reefs, oceans will not be able to absorb as much carbon dioxide as they used to and have for years, leaving more CO2 in the air. Doomsday cometh… Accept it.

What about India?

The major reef formations in India are restricted to the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, Gulf of Kutch, Andaman and Nicobar Islands & the Lakshadweep islands. While the Lakshadweep reefs are atolls, the others mentioned are all fringing reefs. Patchy coral is present in the inter-tidal areas of the central west coast of the country. The Lakshadweep Islands comprise a group of 39 coral Islands and some minor islets and banks. Coral reefs are diverse underwater ecosystems held together by calcium carbonate structures secreted by corals. Andaman and Nicobar Gulf of Kachch and Gulf of Mannar have coral reefs.

Global warming is a reality. As temperatures rise, mass coral bleaching and infectious disease outbreaks are now frequent occurrences. Carbon dioxide absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere has already begun to reduce calcification rates in reef-building and reef-associated organisms by altering sea-water chemistry through decreases in pH values, a process called ocean acidification.

Climate change is affecting coral reef ecosystems – through sea level rise, changes to the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and altered ocean circulation patterns. When combined, all of these impacts are dramatically altering our ecosystem, as well as the goods and services coral reef ecosystems provide to people around the globe.

That reminds me, next time we go to Sarojini Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Fort or Chembur, let's take a hiatus. And not pick up our favorite sweatshirt, T-shirt, jacket, bra or vest in a plastic bag. For there are consequences.

Can we go back?


Unfortunately, we can't

As a world, we are in trouble, very big trouble. Overfishing, as also destructive fishing, unsustainable coastal development, nutrient and sediment loading, some land-based activities, warming temperatures due to Climate Change and ocean acidification are together placing extremely high pressure on the world's coral reefs. Action is needed now. In the last three decades, the planet has lost 25-50 per cent of our live coral worldwide. It is predicted that by Year 2050, this could lead to the end of coral reef ecosystems around the world.

We have taken over 10-12 decades to devastate a privileged and precipitous part of our little planet. Today, we can further destroy or we can cure. Some organizations have taken up the task, particularly in Australia. Scientists are trying to contain outbreaks of the crown-of-thorns starfish, a polyp-eating predator threatens the reef's health. Australia's Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment is floating a 30-year plan to protect this natural wonder. Others are joining suit, terribly slowly but surely.

The rest of us are sleeping. It is time to wake up. And breathe while we can.

The writer is a communications consultant and clinical analyst. Views expressed are personal

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