Kim Cobb, a marine scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, expected the coral to be damaged when she plunged into the deep blue waters off Kiritimati Island, a remote atoll near the center of the Pacific Ocean. Still, she was stunned by what she saw as she descended some 30 feet to the rim of a coral outcropping.
“The entire reef is covered with a red-brown fuzz,” Dr. Cobb said when she returned to the surface after her recent dive. “It is otherworldly. It is algae that has grown over dead coral. It was devastating.”
The damage off Kiritimati is part of a mass bleaching of coral reefs around the world, only the third on record and possibly the worst ever. Scientists believe that heat stress from multiple weather events including the latest severe El Niño, compounded by climate change, has threatened more than a third of Earth’s coral reefs. Many may not recover.
Coral reefs are the crucial incubators of the ocean’s ecosystem, providing food and shelter to a quarter of all marine species, and they support fish stocks that feed more than one billion people. They are made up of millions of tiny animals, called polyps, that form symbiotic relationships with algae, which in turn capture sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars that feed the polyps.
An estimated 30 million small-scale fishermen and women depend on reefs for their livelihoods, more than one million in the Philippines alone. In Indonesia, fish supported by the reefs provide the primary source of protein.
“This is a huge, looming planetary crisis, and we are sticking our heads in the sand about it,” said Justin Marshall, the director of CoralWatch at Australia’s University of Queensland.
Bleaching occurs when high heat and bright sunshine cause the metabolism of the algae — which give coral reefs their brilliant colors and energy — to speed out of control, and they start creating toxins. The polyps recoil. If temperatures drop, the corals can recover, but denuded ones remain vulnerable to disease. When heat stress continues, they starve to death.
Damaged or dying reefs have been found from Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar, to East Flores, Indonesia, and from Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific to the Florida Keys in the Atlantic.
The largest bleaching, at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, was confirmed last month. In a survey of 520 individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef’s northern section, scientists from Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force found only four with no signs of bleaching. Some 620 miles of reef, much of it previously in pristine condition, had suffered significant bleaching.
In follow-up surveys, scientists diving on the reef said half the coral they had seen had died. Terry Hughes, the director of the Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, who took part in the survey, warned that even more would succumb if the water did not cool soon.
The Latest on: Coral bleaching
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The Latest on: Coral bleaching
- The Stream, February 19: Great Barrier Reef at Risk of Bleaching Due to Freshwater Plumes from Queensland Flooding on February 18, 2019 at 9:15 pm
The Great Barrier Reef is at risk of coral bleaching in the wake of the Queensland, Australia, floods. Independent testing finds lead levels in Flint, Michigan, are below the federal action level. The ... […]
- Bonaire: Where Coral and Cactus Thrive, and the Sea Soothes the Soul on February 18, 2019 at 2:16 am
Hurricanes, overdevelopment and warming seas have devastated coral reefs around Florida, inducing a condition called coral bleaching. After that, I paid more attention to headlines about dying coral r... […]
- Great Barrier Reef coral at risk of bleaching from Queensland flood waters on February 17, 2019 at 8:10 pm
The Great Barrier Reef is in danger of further coral bleaching due to recent flooding in north Queensland. Photograph: Ed Roberts/ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies Freshwater bleaching o... […]
- Menindee fish kill is Australia's mainland 'coral bleaching event', scientists warn Labor on February 17, 2019 at 5:15 pm
"Excess" upstream irrigation, drought and water releases from the Menindee Lakes created the perfect storm that led to the ecologically disastrous fish kills over summer, according to scientists who p... […]
- The Great Barrier Reef Is Being Covered with Vast Plumes of Polluted Floodwater That Could Kill Coral on February 15, 2019 at 7:44 am
The newest environmental threat couldn’t have come at a worse time for the reef, which in the last few years has been struck by a damaging cyclone and two catastrophic mass coral bleaching events—the ... […]
- Key West Bans Sunscreen Containing Harmful Chemicals to Coral Reefs on February 7, 2019 at 8:24 pm
The Key West City Commission voted to ban chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which studies have shown can cause coral bleaching and even death. The popular tourist destination, ... […]
- The coral-like sculptures this woman makes come with important message about climate change on February 7, 2019 at 7:08 am
(MORE: Australia's Great Barrier Reef suffers severe coral bleaching) And dying coral reefs impact a lot of ocean life. “Twenty-five percent of all species in the ocean rely on coral reefs to survive. ... […]
- Key West Bans Popular Sunscreen To Protect Coral Reef on February 7, 2019 at 5:42 am
Mayor Teri Johnston said it’s the commission’s “obligation” to protect the reef, which is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental U.S. Researchers say the chemicals lead to bleaching, DN... […]
- Key West bans certain sunscreens to protect coral reef on February 6, 2019 at 9:56 pm
There is a growing body of evidence, however, that suggests those sunscreen ingredients cause coral bleaching and other toxic effects to marine ecosystems when sunscreens worn by beachgoers wash off i... […]
- ‘We have one reef’: Key West bans popular sunscreens to help keep coral alive on February 6, 2019 at 2:23 pm
coral-eating starfish and coral bleaching. Caption A new study shows that the reef has lost more than half its coral cover since 1985, spurred by factors such as hurricanes, coral-eating starfish and ... […]
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