Belize Barrier Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Endangered

Aerial view of Lighthouse Reef, Blue Hole, Belize
The Blue Hole. Thomas Schmitt/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Belize is one of the smallest countries in North America, but it is home to many of the most important features in the second largest coral reef system in the world. The Belize Barrier Reef is important geographically, geologically, and ecologically. Diverse plants and animals live both above and below the crystal-clear warm water. However, the Belize Barrier Reef has been recently scarred because changes are occurring in the environment.
The Belize Barrier Reef has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. UNESCO, scientists, and ordinary citizens must conserve this special coral reef system.

Geography of the Belize Barrier Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef is part of the Mesoamerican Reef System, which stretches for approximately 700 miles (1000 kilometers) from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras and Guatemala. Located in the Caribbean Sea, it is the largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere, and the second largest reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef in Belize is approximately 185 miles long (300 kilometers). The Belize Barrier Reef includes numerous features of coastal geology, such as barrier reefs, fringing reefs, sand cays, mangrove cays, lagoons, and estuaries. The reef is home to three coral atolls, named Lighthouse Reef, Glover's Reef, and the Turneffe Islands. Coral atolls are extremely rare outside of the Pacific Ocean.
The Belizean government has established numerous institutions like national parks, national monuments, and marine reserves to preserve some features of the reef.

Human History of the Belize Barrier Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef has attracted people for thousands of years for both its natural beauty and resources.
From approximately 300 BCE to 900 CE, the Mayan civilization fished from the reef and traded near it. In the 17th century, the reef was visited by European pirates. In 1842, Charles Darwin described the Belize Barrier Reef as the "most remarkable reef in the West Indies." Today, the reef is visited by native Belizeans and people from across the Americas and the world.

Flora and Fauna of the Belize Barrier Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef is home to thousands of species of plants and animals. Some examples include sixty-five species of corals, five hundred species of fish, whale sharks, dolphins, crabs, seahorses, starfish, manatees, American crocodiles, and many bird and turtle species. Conch and lobster are caught and exported from the reef. Possibly up to ninety percent of the animals and plants that live in the reef have not even been discovered yet.

The Blue Hole

The most magnificent feature of the Belize Barrier Reef may be the Blue Hole. Formed throughout the last 150,000 years, the Blue Hole is an underwater sinkhole, the remains of caves that flooded when glaciers melted after ice ages. Many stalactites are present. Located about fifty miles from the coast of Belize, the Blue Hole is approximately 1000 feet across and 400 feet deep. In 1971, famed Frenchmen Jacques Cousteau explored the Blue Hole and claimed that it is one of the best spots in the world to scuba dive and snorkel.

Environmental Issues Affecting the Reef

The Belize Barrier Reef became a "World Heritage Site in Danger" in 2009. The geological and biological features of the reef have been affected by modern-day environmental problems such as rising ocean temperatures and sea levels and events such as El Nino and hurricanes. Increased human development in the region also negatively impacts the reef. Damage has been caused by increased sedimentation and run-off from pesticides and sewage. The reefs are also damaged by tourist activities such as snorkeling and facilities such as cruise ships. Under these conditions, the corals and their algae no longer have access to normal amounts of food and light. The corals die or slowly turn white, a process known as coral bleaching.

Fragile Habitats in Peril

The Belize Barrier Reef and many other reef systems worldwide have been damaged by current environmental problems such as global climate change and pollution. Coral reefs can no longer grow and thrive the way they have for thousands of years. The Belizean and global community recognize that the geology and biodiversity of the Belize Barrier Reef must be preserved.