LIANE HANSEN, host:
Marine biologists met in Washington this past week to launch the international year of the reef. Two new reports suggest that world's underwater rainforests need help.
NPR's John Nielsen has more.
JOHN NIELSEN: Since the 1980s, coral reefs in Jamaica have been wounded by manmade problems like pollution and over fishing. But in the summer of 2005, a different threat arrived when freakishly warm waters triggered a so-called mass bleaching event that turned more than 90 percent of Jamaica's reefs into underwater ghost towns.
Hensly Henry(ph), a reef expert with the government of Jamaica, remembers diving in and seeing no signs of life.
Mr. HENSLY HENRY (Reef Expert): More like in shock. You know, in an ordinary dive, you swim around and you go looking of stuff. On this dive, it was pretty much like standing up with your mouth open, looking at something and going what happened(ph).
NIELSEN: Stories like that one were all too common at the first official meeting at the International Coral Reef Initiative. It's one of several Year of the Reef projects and it's sponsored jointly by the Bush administration and the government of Mexico. One thing this initiative wants to do is draw attention to coral bleaching which could become a lot more common under global warming.
Mark Eakin is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Dr. MARK EAKIN (Director, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): The problem with coral bleaching is one that's been getting worst. It's continuing to get worst now and we can only expect to continue to get worst in the near future.
NIELSEN: Scientists like Eakin help prepare two new reports that seem to highlight the troubles facing coral reefs. One predicts that severe coral bleaching in the Caribbean could be an annual event by the end of the century, and the other looks at threats to deep water coral reefs that aren't necessarily hurt by warming surface waters.
But Eakin says climate change is expected to make the ocean more acidic which make it harder for all corals to grow, and he's sure that climate change is coming.
Dr. EAKIN: From the global perspective that all these satellites provides, we've been able to see this change around the world and it's a frightening change.
NIELSEN: The Year of the Reef is designed to help devise new ways for countries to deal with these changes.
Australian reef expert Clive Wilkinson says a good first step would be for Western countries to start helping poorer countries start enforcing so-called paper reef protection zones.
Dr. CLIVE WILKINSON (Reef Ecologist): A lot of countries have marine-protected areas. You can find them on a map, but you won't find any evidence of them out in the field.
NIELSEN: Experts like Wilkinson say the U.S. has been both a leader and a lagger in the effort to protect the world's coral reefs. Several years ago, the Bush administration set the standard for coral reef preserves when it created one of the world's largest marine reserves in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but at the same time, Wilkinson and others say the White House has resisted efforts to require reductions in global warming gases that help to put the rifts at risk.
John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.
HANSEN: And this is NPR News.
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