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When the Red Sea coral began to die,
scientists looked for possible reasons—volcanic dust's smothering the coral,
presence of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), disease, or some combination of
causes. When scientists measured water temperatures, though, they found cold
water mixed very thoroughly to great depths. (Cold water is usually found very
deep with warmer water near the surface.) Here's what had happened: The
unusually cold surface water had sunk, helping to mix the water column. This
helped to also mix nutrients (like phosphorous) that normally stay deep in the
cold water to near the water's surface. This resulted in the growth of thick,
red algal blooms. They are thought to have smothered the coral, blocking out the
sunlight. When temperatures returned to normal, the algal blooms died because
they no longer had the nutrients they needed. The reefs were soon healthy again.
The eruption of Mount
Pinatubo in the Philippines was the second biggest volcanic eruption of the 20th
century and was 10 times bigger than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in
Washington in 1980. The volcanic residue from the explosion caused coral to die
in the Red Sea. When drought occurs
in West Africa, some Caribbean coral dies. West African dust, which is thickest
during drought years, is transported by winds to the Caribbean. This dust
carries the fungus aspergillus, which thrives on sea fans, a type of coral.
Thick dust can also block out the sun's rays, resulting in reduced
While warmer water due to
the El Nino weather pattern also plays a role in the death of coral, drought in
Africa has coincided with die-offs of coral. In addition, dust can also carry
iron and other nutrients that trigger the growth of phytoplankton and algae that
could also damage coral, the researchers said.
"This combination of atmospheric nutrient enrichment along
with an intermittent supply of fungal spores and possibly bacterial cysts,
especially when combined with warm El Nino conditions, suggest a strong
potential for environmental perturbation."
The coral reefs in the Eastern African region are increasingly
threatened by a number of factors, including destructive fishing methods, sewage
and industrial waste. These factors, together with the coral bleaching event of
1998, have put coral reefs in the region at significant risk. The coastal
population, which is growing at a rate of 5 percent annually, exerts heavy
pressure on coastal and marine habitats and resources. The capacity to manage
the coastal and marine environment has been unable to keep up with the
increasing pressure of rapid urbanization, human-induced stresses and the
prevailing poverty and high demand for subsistence resource use.