There were startling colors at the South Ari Atoll just a year ago, a dazzling array of life beneath the waves. Now this Maldivian reef is dead, killed by the stress of rising ocean temperatures. What's left is a haunting expanse of gray, a scene repeated in reefs across the globe in what has fast become a full-blown ecological catastrophe. The world has lost roughly half its coral reefs in the last 30 years. Scientists are now scrambling to ensure that at least a fraction of these unique ecosystems survives beyond the next three decades, the AP reports. They are seeking new technologies and trying to breed more resilient corals. The health of the planet depends on it: Coral reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe. Often described as underwater rainforests, they populate a tiny fraction of the ocean but provide habitats for one in four marine species.
Reefs also form crucial barriers protecting coastlines from the full force of storms. "This isn't something that's going to happen 100 years from now. We're losing them right now," says marine biologist Julia Baum at the University of Victoria. Even if the world could halt global warming now, scientists still expect that more than 90% of corals will die by 2050. Without drastic intervention, we risk losing them all. "Whether you're living in North America or Europe or Australia, you should be concerned," says biologist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg at the University of Queensland. "This is not just some distant dive destination, a holiday destination. This is the fabric of the ecosystem that supports us." (Last year, the Great Barrier Reef lost 22% of its coral.)