The Hawaiian Islands are most often associated with images of bright blue seas, colorful fish and vivid greenery, but many scientists are concerned that the islands’ reefs will soon all be a stark, cold white.
It’s called coral bleaching and it’s what happens to reefs when ocean temperatures rise and the algae inside coral — zooxanthellae — are expelled. What’s left behind is a dead reef completely drained of its color, Condé Nast Traveler reported.
The Nature Conservancy said last week that the reefs will only become more bleached over time and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 56% of the Big Island’s coral, 44% of the reefs west of Maui and 32% of those surrounding Oahu were bleached between 2014 and 2015.
In February, Hawaii senator Will Espero proposed a ban that would make the sale of chemical-packed sunscreens illegal. Those sunscreens, the bill said, contain a chemical called oxybenzone that promotes fatal coral bleaching.
The Hawaiian reefs are the latest in Earth’s oceans to experience coral bleaching. Most notably, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef saw further bleaching over the past year and is in danger of going completely white. It is the first time two major bodies of coral were bleached in back-to-back years, according to Condé Nast Traveler.
Over time and with cooler temperatures coral can heal, but the current threat of global warming doesn’t give experts much hope.
Staying away from these destinations, however, is not the answer.
“Coral reefs need the tourism industry,” underwater camera technician Zack Rago told Traveler.
Providing these areas with tourist dollars and seeing the effects first hand, he said, are key to the reefs’ survival.
“Science needs the public,” he said, “and particularly the people who are divers traveling the world to help us.”
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