These reefs, formed by the exoskeletons of small animals, are exposed to abnormally high levels of acidity because of carbon dioxide bubbling up from undersea volcanic vents. In areas with slightly elevated acidity, elkhorn, tabletop and other branching corals disappear. In areas with higher levels, even the sturdier mounding corals give way to fields of seaweed.
For island nations, the disappearance of coral reefs could prove disastrous.
Stephen Palumbi, director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Laboratory, said that such reefs are nature’s “sea walls,” protecting islands from sea-level rise and storm waves.
Laboratory experiments show that rising acidity is toxic to some fish larvae and can bring on bizarre behavior. It scrambles the senses of the orange-and-white clown fish, featured in the animated film “Finding Nemo,” making them leave their protective hiding places inside corals or sea anemones. Studies show they become deaf to the sound of predators and even attracted to the predators’ scent.
The result: quick and certain death.