Friday, March 21, 2014

Belize and Coral Bleaching

I took off for nearly a week in Belize to do some scuba diving. If you are a diver I highly recommend you go to Belize. I have been diving for 40 years and this was some of the best diving I have ever done. It was truly magnificent and I wasn't even in the best regions for diving. If you're not into diving then I still recommend Belize. The beaches were nice, the weather was great and the people were wonderfully friendly. There is plenty to do there besides scuba diving. It was also a little weird to be in a Central American country and walk into a place filled with Hispanics and everyone there spoke perfect English. I sometimes felt an urge to launch into my Spanish just to be reminded that the native language there is English.

But, there is always trouble, even in Paradise. And, I saw plenty of evidence of trouble in Belize. No, I'm not talking about drug cartels or communist insurgencies. I'm talking about bleached coral.The good news is that bleached coral is not dead coral. The bad news is that bleached coral is stressed coral and it is more susceptible to things that can kill it.

What is coral bleaching? Coral bleaching occurs when something stresses coral and causes it to expel the algae that lives within it, causing the coral to go completely white. There are many things that can cause the coral to stress and result in bleaching, but the number one way is when the water gets too warm. This is a result of climate change and we are seeing more and more coral bleaching.

When I talked to the dive guide about it I learned he was very knowledgeable about it. He also had been tracking it for many years and he told that there were good years and bad years. Sometimes, the bleaching was all over the place, just to have it go away a year or two later. But, he told me it was something he did not see at all when he was a young man and that it was getting more and more widespread over time.

The people I was diving with all wore wet suits. I wore just a shorts and a shirt to keep the backpack from chaffing my skin. They all asked me why I didn't wear a wet suit. I pointed out how the water temperature was over 80 degrees were we diving, even 100 feet down, and we were exercising the whole time. Staying warm wasn't the problem, cooling down was.When I spoke to our dive guide he confirmed the water was getting warmer by a noticeable amount. He told me that thirty years ago, I would not have been very comfortable diving without a wet suit.

The danger in all of this is that the corals are essential parts of the environment. Coral reefs provide protection from waves for the shore line as well as an enormous amount of biodiversity. Stressing the reefs can lead to widespread coral death and a collapse of the reef, along with the biodiversity and protection they provide. Mapping of coral reefs reveals their health is declining. However, the collapse of coral reefs does not have to happen. There are steps we can take to save them.

Even on vacation, 100 feet below the surface, I still can't get away from the effects of climate change. Which, of course, means that you can't either.

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