Beautiful death

UWindsor professor emeritus Peter Sale discusses the disappearance of coral reefs

Andrea Keelan

Coral reefs may become the first ecosystem to become extinct because of environmental negligence, according to a noted ecologist and University of Windsor professor emeritus.Fish

On Nov. 3, approximately 130 students and Windsor residents attended a seminar at the university by Peter Sale called “Our Planet Does Not Have to
Die.” The lecture discussed the disappearance of the world’s coral reefs, as well as other changes to ecology on a global scale.

“The coral reef ecosystem is a marvelously rich, biologically truly amazing system. It is also particularly susceptible to some of the impacts we are having on the environment,” said Sale. Sale’s message is that we are experiencing a crisis like never before. The seminar title references Sale’s new book, “Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist’s View of the Crisis We Face.”

“I wrote the book because I was alarmed at what I was seeing or reading in the scientific literature, and I knew that most people, even if they believed that the scientific data were right, were not overly concerned about the future,” said Sale. “This crisis is the worst environmental crisis that humanity has seen since the Pleistocene (epoch) when two or more kilometres of ice covered Windsor.”

Both in his book and through his seminar, Sale details how coral reefs may be the first ecosystem to become extinct due to human interaction with
the planet. According to him, this will happen by 2050 if humans do not make some drastic changes. Reefs will be extinct for the next 20 million years, meaning the next generation will probably never see a reef.

Coral reefs exist in tropical oceans because the organisms within them need shallow, clear, warm water to utilize photosynthesis and limestone to create their skeletal makeup. The conditions have to be just right for a coral reef to survive, which is why they only make up 0.1 per cent of all ocean surface area. However, current conditions are killing off this rare and beautiful ecosystem, according to Sale. Pollution of coastal waters, high levels of carbon dioxide and coral mining are all factors that are destroying coral reefs.

Considering that the reefs make up so little of the ocean, some might ask why the disappearance of the reefs is anything to be concerned about. According to Sale, the reefs support 25 per cent of all marine life. Fish, sponges, crustaceans and sea turtles are some of the organisms that the reef supports. Sale posed the question, “If there was a terrestrial ecosystem that took up 0.1 per cent of land but inhabited 25 per cent of the organisms living within it, would we take notice?”

For the countries that exist near reefs, this rare ecosystem isn’t just something pretty and intriguing, it’s literally a huge part of people’s lives. Sale explained that countries with reefs off its coast depend on them for tourism and fishing, accounting for more than 50 per cent of its


The Man Behind the Scuba Mask

  • Peter Sale headed the biology department at the University of Windsor from 1994 to 1998. He became professor emeritus in 2006, moved to Muskoka, and now telecommutes to the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Hamilton, Ont.
  • Sale’s research has largely been centered on coral reef systems. He holds a BSc and MA in zoology from the University of Toronto, and PhD in
    zoology from the University of Hawaii. After obtaining his PhD, he spent 20 years in Australia working on the Great Barrier Reef.
  • His research has always focused on ecology and the behaviour of fish. He has taught both animal behaviours and ecology.


“Coral reefs are of enormous economic value to the countries that have them, but environmental management is frequently inadequate and a variety of
pressures lead to degradation of the reef environment,” said Sale.

The stress that the reefs are currently under because of pollution and high levels of carbon dioxide are causing the coral to bleach. While a whole reef of white coral may seem magical to most people, Sale said it’s an image that’s actually terrifying. During his lecture, he referred to the reefs of bleached coral “beautiful death.”

If the stressful conditions are diffused within a few weeks, the coral can survive and begin producing vibrant colours again. Coral bleaching on a global scale began in 1981 and the worst occurrence of it was in 1998, the warmest year on record, explained Sale. During that year, coral reefs had a mortality rate of 50 to 90 per cent. The coral reefs in the Galapagos Islands have never recovered and are now extinct in that region.

Sale warned that we are allowing coral reefs to be the canary in the coal mine of our changing world, and that if current practices continue, not only will reefs disappear, but other ecosystems will be killed off as well.

During his presentation, Sale detailed other practices that are leading to a bleak future, such as over-fishing, deforestation, pollution, unsustainable cities, pests, biodiversity loss, climate change and ocean acidification.

According to Sale, 7.3 million hectares of forest are cut down every year, an area the size of southern Ontario. He added that we are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction of species the planet has seen, with the last one being the dinosaurs. If we continue on this path, Sale predicts that by the year 2100, 50 per cent of all species will be extinct.

During his presentation, Sale showed a graph from the National Climatic Data Center in the United States of the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the air.

Rachel Abma, a master’s of environmental science student, found the graph very interesting. “The thing that I liked the most was when [Sale] showed that graph started at 1958. When you learn about climate, you don’t think back that far in terms of climate change.” “It does make you think about turning off your lights and using your car less. It’s making me think about it again,” Abma added.

Sale suggested reducing the use of fossil fuels and treating energy as precious. He also said improved efficiency in automobiles and buildings would help people use less energy, as well as transitioning to different energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, tidal and nuclear

Sale said that those of us Western countries need to take a cue from other cultures and “act as stewards of the land, not as plunderers.”

“There is a good future out there, but we can only reach it by making the right changes to our behavior now. I am optimistic about our ability to change,” said Sale. “The change required does not mean we have to go back to living in grass huts, but I also know that nations will not make the required changes until a sufficient number of people are motivated to pressure leaders.”

“With that pressure, leaders will rush to the front of the parade and we will be on the right path.”

For more information on how the earth is changing and Peter Sale’s book, “Our Dying Planet,” visit

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