A rise in sea temperatures killed off 90 per cent of the coral reefs near the surface of the Indian Ocean in only one year, while the remaining 10 per cent could die in the next 20 years, devastating fish stocks and tourism vital to coastal economies, research published today says.
The loss of these 'rainforests of the ocean' would also lead to increased coastal erosion as the natural breakwaters formed by the live corals were worn down.
The dire warning, by Dr Charles Sheppard of the University of Warwick, follows a gradual rise in maximum sea temperatures, which in 1998 devastated the shallow corals lying from 10 to 40 metres (33ft to 130ft) below the surface. Since then some corals had begun to recover - but the risk continues.
'It's like a forest,' said Dr Sheppard. 'If you kill off 90 per cent, there might be just enough left to sustain some life around it, such as squirrels and so on. But if you have the same impact again and again there's no clear line as to when it's alive or not as a forest.'
Good thing the earth is not warming, isn't it?
Coral reefs support aquatic organisms in complex, linked food chains. But with global warming causing a rise in sea temperatures - to which the organisms that build reefs are sensitive - environmentalists fear they will be destroyed."