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Still Time to Save the Persian Gulf’s Dying Coral Reefs?

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 23, 2015

"Luxury" in place of coral reefs: Dubai's Palm Jumeirah. (Photo: Matthias Seifer/Reuters)

“Luxury” in place of coral reefs: Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah. (Photo: Matthias Seifer/Reuters)

My latest for Takepart:

If you wanted to see the rapid and disastrous effects of ignoring environmental science, it would be hard to find a more discouraging example than the Persian Gulf. It’s a small, shallow, salty body of water, bottled up at its southern end by the 29-mile-wide Straits of Hormuz, and researchers have been warning for more than 30 years about the inevitable consequences of careless development.

Those warnings have gone almost entirely unheeded, as the eight oil-rich nations bordering the Gulf have rushed to create global megacities in place of former trading and fishing villages. Salt marshes, salt flats, sea grass beds, mangrove swamps, and rich coral reefs have rapidly vanished, along with the fisheries they supported. An estimated 70 percent of the coral reefs, which once flourished across an area of almost 1500 square miles, are already dead, with another 15 percent in critical condition. The few reefs that remain relatively healthy tend to be around diving clubs, and in areas “worth visiting for recreational purposes,” according to an article appearing this week in Marine Pollution Bulletin. And even those are commonly “covered with fish traps and lobster pots.”

The major cause of this devastation doesn’t come from some force beyond local control, despite frequent claims to that effect. “It is not uncommon in Gulf States to hear that degradation of the shallow coastal habitats is caused variously by global warming, or by the massive and deliberate Iraqi oil spill, or by other factors which somehow are not our fault, ” writes Charles Sheppard, a University of Warwick marine ecologist who has worked in the region since the mid-1980s.

Sheppard calls that “a false deflection of blame” for problems largely caused by such mundane—and preventable–problems as “reclaiming” land by filling coastal waters, misguided dredging practices, sedimentation from development, discharges of sewage and other pollutants, and overfishing.

In one notorious case, the United Arab Emirates built Palm Jumeirah, the ostensibly glamorous artificial archipelago in the shape of a palm tree, over what had been a protected marine reserve. It buried three square miles of living coral under tons of rock and sand. (Palm Jumeirah is now said to be sinking back into the sea.)

The people behind such projects often “have little idea of understanding of what is underwater,” or how marine ecosystems works, according to Sheppard. He describes another case in an unnamed country, where a restoration program had established artificial reefs to create habitat, as the natural reefs were vanishing. Together with a ban on fishing, this resulted in a rapid recovery of corals and large groupers—a prize game fish—followed immediately by pressure from officials to allow spearfishing. Informed that this would destroy the value of the restoration project, the officials then asked if there could at least be spearfishing on holidays “with the reasoning that one day per week surely could not matter.” The only way to get them to understand why this wouldn’t work was to put it in terrestrial terms: Would they also allow one-day-a-week hunting in that nation’s struggling Arabian oryx recovery program?

To save the Gulf—“a very enclosed and not particularly large marine basin”–will require far more cooperation among the eight Gulf nations, according to Sheppard. Satellites have tracked sediment “plumes from one state going right into another, where they will smother the sea grass and algae beds and coral reefs.”

Whether such episodes result in protests from one state to another is unknown because the workings of Gulf State governments are largely hidden. But writing last year in the journal City, John Burt, a marine biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi, argued that “the highly centralized decision-making framework characteristic of governance in this region” might actually be an advantage in addressing these kinds of problems, because of the potential for “rapid changes in policy direction and financial support for … more environmentally sustainable urban development on the Gulf’s coasts.”

First, though, the Gulf States—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, together with Iraq and Iran—need to admit that they have a problem. The next step after that isn’t to do more research, Sheppard writes: “We already know enough about what is killing the shallow marine habitats of the Gulf—it is no longer a scientific issue and indeed has not been for a couple of decades.”

The job is simply to pay attention to the science that already exists in abundance. For Sheppard, that means “ecological evidence should not be viewed as being just another optional ‘stakeholder input,’ alongside the voices of, for example, a construction project’s managers, or an investment company’s interests.” Instead, “construction and investment need to work around the needs of maintaining the ecosystems because ecosystems cannot work around the needs of a heavily invested construction project.”

If that kind of dramatic shift does not happen soon, the devastation in the Gulf will only accelerate—one more poignant warning to the rest of the world, where ignoring inconvenient environmental science now seems to be epidemic.

One Response to “Still Time to Save the Persian Gulf’s Dying Coral Reefs?”

  1. New press release from MIT:
    ======================================
    Study: Persian Gulf could experience deadly heat
    Detailed climate simulation shows a threshold of survivability could be crossed without mitigation measures.
    ======================================

    CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Within this century, parts of the Persian Gulf region could be hit with unprecedented events of deadly heat as a result of climate change, according to a study of high-resolution climate models.

    The research reveals details of a business-as-usual scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, but also shows that curbing emissions could forestall these deadly temperature extremes.

    The study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by Elfatih Eltahir, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, and Jeremy Pal PhD ’01 at Loyola Marymount University. They conclude that conditions in the Persian Gulf region, including its shallow water and intense sun, make it “a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in absence of significant mitigation, is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”

    Running high-resolution versions of standard climate models, Eltahir and Pal found that many major cities in the region could exceed a tipping point for human survival, even in shaded and well-ventilated spaces. Eltahir says this threshold “has, as far as we know … never been reported for any location on Earth.”

    That tipping point involves a measurement called the “wet-bulb temperature” that combines temperature and humidity, reflecting conditions the human body could maintain without artificial cooling. That threshold for survival for more than six unprotected hours is 35 degrees Celsius, or about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to recently published research. (The equivalent number in the National Weather Service’s more commonly used “heat index” would be about 165 F.)

    This limit was almost reached this summer, at the end of an extreme, weeklong heat wave in the region: On July 31, the wet-bulb temperature in Bandahr Mashrahr, Iran, hit 34.6 C — just a fraction below the threshold, for an hour or less.

    But the severe danger to human health and life occurs when such temperatures are sustained for several hours, Eltahir says — which the models show would occur several times in a 30-year period toward the end of the century under the business-as-usual scenario used as a benchmark by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    The Persian Gulf region is especially vulnerable, the researchers say, because of a combination of low elevations, clear sky, water body that increases heat absorption, and the shallowness of the Persian Gulf itself, which produces high water temperatures that lead to strong evaporation and very high humidity.

    The models show that by the latter part of this century, major cities such as Doha, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and Bandar Abbas, Iran, could exceed the 35 C threshold several times over a 30-year period. What’s more, Eltahir says, hot summer conditions that now occur once every 20 days or so “will characterize the usual summer day in the future.”

    While the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, adjacent to the Red Sea, would see less extreme heat, the projections show that dangerous extremes are also likely there, reaching wet-bulb temperatures of 32 to 34 C. This could be a particular concern, the authors note, because the annual Hajj, or annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca — when as many as 2 million pilgrims take part in rituals that include standing outdoors for a full day of prayer — sometimes occurs during these hot months.

    While many in the Persian Gulf’s wealthier states might be able to adapt to new climate extremes, poorer areas, such as Yemen, might be less able to cope with such extremes, the authors say.

    The research was supported by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science

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