10/10/2011 19:58 BST | Updated 10/12/2011 05:12 GMT

If we Allow Coral Reefs to Disappear, Earth Enters Million Years Timescale

The Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction was the largest in our planet's history. Enormous disruptions of the carbon cycle led to climate change, ocean acidification and ocean anoxia - and with an estimated 90 per cent of all species dying out Earth almost returned to a lifeless state.

Within the remaining 10 per cent of biodiversity, however, all of Life's Kingdoms were represented, so the seeds for recovery did exist.

That recovery took millions of years during which Earth was a desolate place, mostly home to microbes. It's known to geology as the 'coal gap' - as even the forests had gone.

Coral reefs weren't traceable in the fossil record for 5 million years, but now new research published in Nature Geoscience shows reef-building organisms were part of an ancient coastal ecosystem in what is now a Southwestern US limestone deposit 'as soon as' 1.5 million years after the end-Permian extinction event.

The authors think conditions for marine life remained harsh for much of the early Triassic though, but that locally the reef-building organisms managed to occupy niches whenever conditions (temporarily) improved.

As reefs to a large extent consist of calcium carbonates, coral creatures are thought to be vulnerable to ocean acidification. As long as atmospheric and oceanic CO2 concentrations remained high, this could have been a recurring problem for marine life for millions of years - only to be solved when life - both in the oceans and on land - for unapparent reasons managed to switch to a higher gear and total biological productivity increased, elevating oxygen levels and storing CO2 in biomass and (through that) eventually in Earth's deep, geological carbon cycle.

Anyway, you know how this research reaches the media? 'Reefs make rapid comeback after extinction' - no problem - move along.

This time don't blame time-pressed journalists, blame the press release.

It may be a nice way to draw some attention to the scientists' hard work, but mixing up data & marketing is confusing to the general public - and risks to undermine our sense of environmental urgency.

Because these 1.5 million years are not what another research group earlier last week had in mind when they too hinted at a possible quick recovery of coral reefs - but then on the human timescale, the kind of good news we do appreciate.

Then again, in their PLoS ONEpublication they were talking about reefs under threat, not about reefs that were already gone. So if really we like to see good news come true we should take both publications at heart - and do all we can to prevent our present reef systems from crossing the coral extinction threshold. If instead we simply wait out the century, we now know we'll then have to wait 15,000 times longer to celebrate our 'rapid recovery'.