Featured Image Credit: The Post & Courier
On any given day, when Phil Dustan isn’t in the classroom teaching college students about marine biology, you might just find him at the bottom of the ocean studying coral reefs.
In 2014, Phil Dustan brought documentary filmmakers to Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys. At the time, the filmmakers were just beginning to work on their next environmental documentary, Chasing Coral, a documentary about coral bleaching. Just before the dive, Dustan showed them what Carysfort Reef looked like back in the 70’s to give them an idea of what changes the reef has gone through.
What they saw “blew their minds,” Dustan said. The reef looked like a pile of bone covered in algae. The filmmakers quickly realized what they were looking at was a dead reef. This revelation would help propel the producers into a journey across the world to document a coral bleaching event that would end up leaving biologists in tears and raised fears that entire ecosystems will disappear in a generation.
Philip Dustan, PhD, a marine biologist has been studying coral reefs since 1969. “It’s a real tragedy,” says Dustan. “But over the past twenty years, we’ve seen a rapid decline in the vitality of coral reefs and their ecosystems worldwide.” Dustan explains that corals evolved in warm, clean still waters with stable levels of sunlight and salinity. In order for these reefs to survive, they must remain in these pristine conditions and stay undisturbed.
In addition to staying in stable conditions, a delicate balance must exist between the animals that feed and live among the reefs. If not, the polyps, which line the top layer of coral reefs, will be eaten away by predators, devastated by disease, or simply become so stressed that they die. As a result, the reefs will collapse and the creatures that feed off these polyps will vanish from the area.
Since the 1970’s, reefs across the U.S have been dying at an unprecedented rate, and it only seems to be getting worse as time goes by. Extensive reef monitoring studies conducted by the EPA and other agencies have shown that in the Florida Keys alone, the reefs lost more than 38% of their living coral cover from 1996 to 1999. Carysfort Reef lost over 90% of its coral cover from 1974 to 1999. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the single largest coral reef monitoring effort in the world, reported in October 2000 that of all the reefs they monitor worldwide, 27 percent have been lost and another 32 percent could be lost in the next 20-30 years. Another report published by the World Resources Institute states that 58 percent of all reefs are at serious risk from human development. All of these reports point to human activity as the primary reason for the decline of the reefs.
Burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels have unlocked massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, which is largely absorbed by the ocean, preventing runaway temperature hikes on land. Because of rising water temperates, some scientists predict that most coral reefs will be gone within 50 years or less.
The documentary, Chasing Coral, will premiere on Netflix on July 14. Be sure to tune in for a journey across the world during a widespread coral reef bleaching event.