Why Are Coral Reefs Worth Protecting?

Did you know that we rely in part on coral reefs to help produce the oxygen we breathe? Author Maris Wicks explains the water cycle, coral bleaching, and what we can do to help protect coral reefs.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
9-minute read
Episode #260

Where are coral reefs located?

EE: Along those lines, you’re talking about the very specific environment that is needed for coral to thrive. I also learned from your book that despite being home to 25%—that’s huge!—of all of the animals found in the ocean, coral reefs cover only 0.1% of the planet’s surface. Can you tell us about where most of these coral reefs are located?

MW: Most of the coral reefs are found in shallow, tropical oceans. The reason why I say shallow is because the zooxanthellae that live on the corals need sunlight in order to survive. The other part for reef-building corals is that it has to be pretty warm. They are adapted to live in warmer places. Now, that being said, there are types of corals that live in deep ocean or where it’s dark or where it’s cold, they just don’t build these elaborate reefs the same way that the warm, tropical corals do.

How can we protect coral reefs?

EE: Our goby narrator again tells us that coral reefs, depending on the type, require anywhere from 10,000 to 30 million years to form so they are not exactly easily replaced. How can we protect coral reefs? What can we do?

MW: That is an awesome question. I think that’s usually the question that a lot of people come away with either after reading my book or visiting an aquarium or just learning about a place that’s far away from them that still affects them in a way, like they still need it to survive. So, I like to start by saying healthy oceans come from healthy reefs and healthy reefs come from healthy oceans. The coral reefs are part of a bigger place, our planet, and all of the ocean is connected.

That being said, even if you live really far away from the ocean or a coral reef there are still things you can do to help keep the ocean healthy. I like to give people two things: little things and big things just because little things can seem easier at first than big things.  So I start with something that we probably all use every single day and it’s all around you. We have a lot of it but it’s not that great: plastic! If you can find a way to use less plastic in your life, that is a great start. 80% of the litter in the ocean is plastic, and 80% of that plastic litter comes from the land. It’s not just getting thrown overboard by boats. It is coming into the ocean from streams or rivers.

80% of the litter in the ocean is plastic, and 80% of that plastic litter comes from the land.

So I look around me and I look at the most evil plastic nearby and I say, oh, drinking straws. I know you probably haven’t thought of drinking straws as being evil but in this country we go through 500 million drinking straws a day. That’s the equivalent of filling 127 school buses with drinking straws. Just in a day. Not in a year, in a day! Which I think is absurd! That’s more straws than there are people.

So if you can think when you’re either at home or out, think of ways to say politely “no” to plastic. Just say, "No, I don’t want a straw. I don’t want a plastic water bottle I can refill my own or I can use a cup." Just being aware of how much stuff we use that we don’t need to is a really good start. I know it kind of sounds weird because it doesn’t seem that connected to the oceans, but trust me. The less plastic we use the less plastic that ends up there, and that’s better for not just coral reefs but oceans in general.

Now I said there were two things: big thing. If you feel like the little things are too little, big things you can do is start to spread the word. Maybe if you notice your school uses a lot of plastic, see if you can get your school to go zero plastic or reduce its plastic or think of ways to get your friends or family interested in doing this. It’s not a huge leap to decide to use less plastic.

It’s not really hard to do. It’s just kind of switching your brain’s gears. If you wanna go bigger, think about your town. See if you can get your town to get rid of plastic bags or plastic containers from food places and use an alternative thing to package food. From the little ideas, hopefully the big ideas can take hold because if enough people do all this stuff it does make a really big difference.

EE: That’s great advice. I live in Los Angeles and grocery stores don’t give you plastic bags anymore. At first it seemed like, "oh this going to be so inconvenient" but it really isn’t that hard to, say, throw a bag in your car once you reset your thinking.

MW: Yeah I almost borderline have a fun bag problem because I see reusable bags that have cool designs on them and I buy them and now I have like 20 of them. There are ones with fruits and vegetables on them. I have a bag that just says “books books books” and that’s the bag that I bring to use at the library or to the book store when I’m going to buy books. You can make it fun, for sure.

EE: There is so much information in your book that we did not get to cover. One of the things that gets brought up at my house at dinner time now and something that goes along with what you’re saying about how we have this one planet and everything is connected—your book talks about the water cycle and the fact that the water we’re drinking now is the same water that the dinosaurs drank. My daughter who is obsessed with dinosaurs thinks this is the coolest thing ever.

MW: That’s my favorite fun fact and I don’t think I learned that until I was an adult. So I feel like I am the pied piper of “everyone must know this because it’s the coolest fact ever!” It’s fun because stuff like that is kind of a wow fact, something that pulls you in. But then it’s a reminder that we have limited resources and water is really important on this planet. So it’s really good to think of it as a precious thing whether it’s the water you’re drinking or the water in the ocean that a lot of animals depend on and us.

EE: Yes, exactly. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today.

MW: You are welcome! I was super excited to share my enthusiasm and passion for the oceans with you so I hope your listeners and readers enjoy it as well.

EE: Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

science comics coral reefsIn Coral Reefs, we learn all about these tiny, adorable sea animals! This absorbing look at ocean science covers the biology of coral reefs as well as their ecological importance. Nonfiction comics genius Maris Wicks brings to bear her signature combination of hardcore cuteness and in-depth science.

Buy the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Indiebound, or Powells

Image courtesy of Maris Wicks.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.