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
- Reef bleaching 'like trees losing leaves in Autumn': KAP on April 17, 2019 at 12:00 pm
CORAL bleaching is like the changing of the seasons, key senate candidates for Katter's Australian Party have declared. Cairns-based KAP Queensland senate candidate Joy Marriott declared claims the ... […]
- Marine life expert talks about coral reefs in Qatar on April 17, 2019 at 7:12 am
She completed post-doctoral training in Florida on coral bleaching and disease. She then returned to Hawaii and was faculty at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology where her lab focused on ... […]
- Employing 3-D coral reef remote sensing to predict fish biomass on April 16, 2019 at 4:06 am
At the mercy of a warming ocean due to climate change, reefs are experiencing more frequent and damaging coral bleaching events, leaving fish (and other ocean dwellers) with barren accommodations ... […]
- An incredible story of reef recovery after coral bleaching at Palmyra Atoll on April 12, 2019 at 8:01 pm
Scripps Oceanography published a press release this week celebrating the Smith Lab’s most recent publication led by Dr. Mike Fox. The paper, published in Coral Reefs on April 5th, reveals an ... […]
- Islands & climate change: Storm surges & coral bleaching affecting tourism on April 11, 2019 at 6:52 pm
Since Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl and climate activist, brought the topic of climate protection onto the political and social agenda with her strikes, the negative effects of climate change ... […]
- New England Aquarium opens coral reef exhibit with ‘brilliantly-colored’ fish in floor-to-ceiling tank on April 9, 2019 at 10:12 am
Scientists also say that warming ocean temperatures cause coral bleaching events which disrupt the health and vitality of the reefs. That is already happening with The Great Barrier Reef off ... […]
- Bleaching has struck the southernmost coral reef in the world on April 8, 2019 at 4:48 pm
Last month corals in Lord Howe Island Marine Park began showing signs of bleaching. The 145,000 hectare marine park contains the most southerly coral reef in the world, in one of the most isolated ... […]
- Bonaire shows the rest of the world how to save coral on April 6, 2019 at 9:46 pm
But increasingly shoreline overdevelopment and warmer oceans are killing the corals. Once rare, coral bleaching now happens once every six years, leaving behind calcium skeletons where flora and fauna ... […]
- Coral bleaching reaches World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island Marine Park on April 4, 2019 at 9:20 pm
Researchers found bleaching at five of the six sites they visited Some of the reef was thriving and the more severe bleaching was on coral closer to the shore As coral suffers, so can the animals who ... […]
- Climate Change Disrupts Coral Recovery of Great Barrier Reef on April 4, 2019 at 1:06 pm
suffered devastating effects of coral bleaching for two consecutive years in 2016 and 2017. "The number of new corals settling on the Great Barrier Reef declined by 89 percent following the ... […]
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