Human beings are rapidly killing off the world’s coral, just like we’ve been doing since prehistoric times. Paleoecologist John Pandolfi says, “No coral reef system in the world is pristine, and they haven’t been for a long time.”

“It didn’t matter if we were looking at the Red Sea, Australia or the Caribbean,” says researcher Karen Bjorndal. “As soon as human exploitation began, whether in the 1600s in Bermuda or tens of thousands of years ago in the Red Sea, the same scenarios were put into play.”

Maggie Fox writes that researchers say the coral destruction began during prehistoric times, leaving all the Earth’s reefs substantially damaged “long before outbreaks of coral disease and bleaching.” In more recent times, people killed off large predators such as sharks, then smaller fish. This eventually damaged the corals themselves. “In the 1600s when the European ships used to navigate in the Caribbean, the ship’s captain could navigate by the sounds of turtles, there were so many turtles swimming in the water,” says Pandolfi. “It is a very, very different world.”

But recent outbreaks of coral disease and bleaching may mean we’ve finally gone too far. Alex Kirby writes in BBC News that the world’s coral reefs, weakened by centuries of human abuse, may disappear during this century. And global warming may be the final blow. Researchers say, “We can be certainthat the projected increases in carbon dioxide and temperature over the next 50 years will substantially and very rapidly exceed the conditions under which coral reefs have flourished over the past half-million years.”

This isn’t a good omen for our future.

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