Coral reefs exhibit some of the most vibrant and varied colors of any ecosystem on Earth, but in 2016, large parts of the Great Barrier Reef turned stark white in the deadliest bleaching event in recorded history.

Coral bleaching occurs when polyps, the colorful parts of the coral that help feed the organism, die. When these polyps die, the coral’s white skeleton is exposed. This stark contrast to its natural state is where the term coral bleaching originates from. At its heart, coral bleaching is due to global warming. The increased amount of greenhouse gasses in the air, like carbon dioxide and methane, are holding more heat within the Earth’s atmosphere. 93% of the extra heat being retained by these excessive gasses is being absorbed by the ocean, raising the ocean’s temperature by 4° F. Although this increase may seem small, it is similar to you or I having a 102° fever — a temperature that is unsustainable and indicative of disease.

 Coral Bleaching Infographic

Image Credit: NOAA

Coral bleaching not only puts large portions of ocean life at risk for habitat loss, but also has the potential to damage a large part of the economy. Coral reefs are as important to the ocean as the rain forests are to the land portions of our planet, for both natural resources and ecosystem services. Reefs house 25% of all marine life in the ocean. The fish whose habitat depend on the coral reefs are the food supply for 1 billion people worldwide. The reefs themselves act as natural barriers to waves and severe weather. They generate nearly $36 billion dollars and millions of jobs to the economy in fishing and tourism. These horrific white bone yards are their plea for help, and a warning sign to humans that the reefs can no longer provide the resources and services they did before.

Image result for coral bleaching before and after

Image Credit: Popular Science

This is our fault. The world’s use of fossil fuels is the greatest contributor to climate change, which is the reason the ocean is warming and causing the coral to bleach. Our daily actions do not exist in a vacuum; the number of times we drive our cars, travel in airplanes, purchase produce in our grocery stores from countries millions of miles away, eat red meat, use plastic grocery bags made from oil, drink from plastic water bottles, and switch on our lights, all contribute to the gradual heating of our planet that is sickening the ocean, causing large parts of it to die.

Because this is our fault, it is our responsibility to fix the damage we have already done, and create a plan of action to avoid future harm. Together, we must make a collective decision to become more aware of our daily activities that contribute to fossil fuel emissions, and then, we must decrease those activities in our lives. The current administration has decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement, which is a step in the wrong direction – this agreement’s commitment to decreasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions is what will prevent further warming of the ocean, decreasing the likelihood of these bleaching events. As United States citizens, we in our daily lives can continue to follow the Paris agreement by leading a life that actively pays attention to the impact our purchases, activities, and lifestyles have on the planet. If we each make a small change in our daily lives, and encourage others to also make that small change, that collective change will have a significant effect, whether that lifestyle adjustment is carpooling to work, turning your air conditioner down when you are not at home, buying red meat only once a week, investing your wealth in green technologies, no longer using plastic grocery bags, or simply telling other people about the effects of climate change, like ocean bleaching, that will influence them to change their daily behaviors.

These personal changes are a step in the right direction, and something that we can tackle while the current administration is backing away from the Paris Agreement. However, large businesses and industries in the United States and around the world are some of the biggest contributors to carbon pollution, which is something that we cannot influence as easily as our day to day behaviors. The starting point for saving the coral reefs begins at home, but must expand to include public policies that cap carbon emissions and invest in green technology that moves the economy away from fossil fuels.

With an administration that does not respect the dangers of carbon pollution, it is even more imperative that we create our own behavioral changes, and that the issues of climate change and global warming be pivotal in our upcoming national elections. A collective action to take responsibility over our carbon use and a dedication to political action in the future is what will bring the color back to the reef. One of the most vibrant and essential parts of our ecosystem is relying on us, and we cannot fail.