Spratly Islands: Burying Coral Reefs Alive


It was tough to read the news a few weeks ago. My news feed was inundated with articles about islands being built on top of coral reefs from The Huffington Post, New York Times, and Washington Post, among others.

China’s recent efforts to build and expand islands in the South China Sea have serious geopolitical implications. But beyond any international jockeying, China’s actions have environmental consequences that will affect the very future of coral reefs.

The world’s oceans have thousands of isolated reefs and atolls like those in the Spratly Islands. These reefs–far from the local threats that emanate from large human populations–could be some of the most important refuges for corals in the future. Before humanity moves farther forward with the destructive practice of building islands on top of reefs, we should be clear about the environmental and social costs.

Corals are living animals and some of them build rocky calcium carbonate skeletons which, over time, accumulate to form reefs and low-lying islands. When people pump sediment into piles to form new land, they literally bury corals alive with the skeletons of their ancestors.

The kind of construction that is visible on the Spratly Islands is devastating for corals, not just because individual corals are dug up and buried during the construction process, but island building also triggers a host of indirect threats known to harm corals like changes in water flow patterns, pollution from land-based activities, and the risk of heightened fishing pressure from new residents on the manufactured islands.

All of humanity has a stake in the future of coral reefs, which house one of the greatest concentrations of life on the planet. One out of every four ocean species calls a coral reef home, even though the reefs —> Read More