Coral are keystone species, meaning that they play an essential, balancing role in their ecosystem. Formed by the accumulation of coral polyps and their hard, limestone skeletons, reefs grow extremely slowly. Depending on species and location, growth rates range from a matter of millimeters to a few centimeters per year. Most existing reefs have formed over the course of the last 500-10000 years and provide vital habitat, food, and spawning ground for roughly 25% of marine species. While we stress the intrinsic value and ecological benefits of coral reefs, they provide economic and recreational benefits to humans. Coral acts as a protective buffer for coastal communities, diminishing the energy of waves, floods, and storms. They play an integral role in our food system as an essential element of healthy fisheries and act as the backbone of local tourism economies.
Coral live in a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae. This algae lives within the coral polyp, providing life sustaining nutrients and compounds. Zooxanthellae also give coral their spectacular colors. The term coral bleaching refers to a process in which the coral expel this algae, halting growth, reproduction, and eventually killing the coral. Pollution, in a variety of forms, is the main driver of this phenomenon.
Anthropogenic carbon emissions are the main form of pollution affecting reefs. Carbon pollution drives climate change, warming average temperatures in the atmosphere as well as our oceans. Slight changes in ocean temperature can have a devastating impact. Two notable “bleaching events” in 2016 and 2017, characterized by abnormally warm water temperatures and extreme weather killed an estimated 50% of shallow water coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Global warming intensifies severe weather events which can harm vulnerable coral. In addition to making oceans hotter, Atmospheric carbon makes oceans more acidic. Ocean acidification occurs as the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide, resulting in chemical reactions that produce acid. Acidification hurts the ability of marine life to form shells and skeletons, rendering coral especially vulnerable.
Several chemicals in sunscreen have also been linked to coral bleaching. Among many chemicals commonly found in sunscreen, oxybenzone has proven toxic to coral in seemingly microscopic concentrations. According to a study by Haereticus Environmental Labs, a concentration of “62 parts-per-trillion - equivalent to a drop of water in six and a half olympic sized swimming pools” is toxic to juvenile coral. Common in chemical sunscreens, avobenzone and octinoxate have also proven detrimental to human health and marine life. The toxicity of these substances has led governments across the world to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens. Check out our list of locations.
Coral reefs are susceptible to minute changes in their environment ranging from temperature to acidity and pollutants. Lowering our carbon footprint, practicing sustainability, and helping others do the same may be the most significant contribution that we can make to coral reefs. We can, however, minimize our direct impact through environmentally friendly consumption. It is important to read labels and research all types of items that we purchase in order to evaluate their environmental impact. As we continue to learn about the detrimental effects of chemical sunscreen on humans and the environment, make sure to buy reef-friendly mineral sunscreen!
TropicSport sunscreen is Reef-Friendly and free of harsh chemicals, protecting our skin and minimizing our impact on the environment without compromising performance.