What if every tree in and around Pocatello suddenly died? No majestic old maple trees left along South Eighth Avenue, no poplars around Alameda Park, no lindens lining Satterfield Drive. No Douglas fir on the north slopes of Kinport Peak and Scout Mountain or on North and South Putnam in the Portneuf Range. Not even junipers left on Chinese Peak.
That would be a huge change, wouldn’t it? You would certainly notice. Yet the equivalent of that change is happening now in the world’s oceans and most people are not noticing. Too many of those who are aware of it seem not to be paying attention.
The change, of course, is coral bleaching. Roughly 500 million people, about one of every 15 of the people on earth, rely on corals reefs for food and a livelihood.
When corals turn white over large areas, it’s a sign these unique organisms are seriously ill. They may recover, but too often they simply die. And when corals die, their ecosystems rich with marine life die, too.
The cause of coral bleaching is complex. Ocean water that’s too hot, too cold, too polluted or too diluted by freshwater from rains and floods are all causes of bleaching events. The most large scale of those events, however, are caused by heat.
Unusually high ocean temperatures began causing coral bleaching in the late 20th century. Now major bleaching events occur at least every five years or so, sometimes more often.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is by far the largest reef on Earth. If it were along the East Coast of the U.S., it would stretch from Florida to Maine. The reef is made up of about 2,900 individual reefs covering 130,000 square miles. In the Australian summer of 2016-17, almost 30,000 square miles of the reef died in the most massive coral bleaching event yet.
Late April is the start of fall in Australia. The intense heat of summer along the north coast of Queensland begins to ease off then. We arrived at the coastal community of Cairns there many years ago and booked a day trip to snorkel on part of the Great Barrier Reef.
Coming from East Idaho where scenic beauty greets the eyes mainly in soft shades of grey, green, blue and brown, a few seconds in the water on the reef made it crystal clear that we weren’t in Idaho any more. Neon blues, bright yellows, intense magentas and bold blacks decorated fish darting in and out among the corals.
Some fish had unique, strong patterns of orange, white and black making them look more like psychedelic clowns than anything we’d ever seen before. Parrot fish, butterfly fish, angel fish, surgeonfish — the variety was overwhelming.
Hours seemed like minutes as we snorkeled, agog at the unique sights of the reef environment. Far too soon, our reef diving was over and we were in for a long, choppy ride back to port.
We spent most of a couple years in Australia. Yet of all the sights we saw, from kangaroos to koalas to kookaburras and much more, the most intense memories come from those brief hours snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.
The thought of that magnificent marine national park being wiped out in succeeding waves of excessively hot ocean currents is heartbreaking. There’s no question that human civilization’s use of fossilized plant matter for energy is the cause of ocean warming. That there are many more of us every year and that our use of such energy has accelerated is making the situation worse.
Per person, we use far more climate-changing fossil fuel than any other country. We’re about 4 percent of the world’s population, yet use about 15 percent of the fossil fuel burned on earth every year. We can do better.
Yes, China emits more than twice as much carbon dioxide as we do. The rest of humanity burns fossil fuels, also. The right way forward is for us to lead the way in the development of more human-friendly sources of energy.
People all over the planet, from older ones like me to children who are going to be burdened with the consequences of our energy choices are crying out that it’s time, that it’s past time, to start doing things differently.
Dave Finkelnburg is a longtime Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.