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
- Why Floridians are fighting over sunscreen banson January 24, 2020 at 5:31 pm
which studies have found can contribute to coral bleaching. As much as 70% of sunscreens sold in the U.S. contain oxybenzone — including some products from leading brands such as Coppertone and ...
- Key West approved a ban on sunscreen chemicals. Florida is moving to block iton January 24, 2020 at 10:04 am
Sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the proposal comes from that Key West decision to ban sunscreens with octinoxate and oxybenzone, which studies show have been linked to coral bleaching ...
- A rare study maps the changing nature of coral reefs off Tamil Nadu’s coaston January 24, 2020 at 12:24 am
Record high oceanic temperatures triggered an unprecedented global-scale coral bleaching event from 2014 to 2017, which was the longest-lasting and most severe. More than 75% of the world’s tropical ...
- Family of Cape Coral teens murdered heartbroken killer’s life sentence overturnedon January 23, 2020 at 7:16 pm
Ashley Toye was just 17 years old when she took part in the 2006 murders of 18-year-old Jeffrey Sosa and 14-year-old Alexis “Alex” Sosa in Cape Coral. Toye’s age is ... The boys were beaten, had ...
- Florida Senate Poised To Stop Municipalities From Regulating Sunscreen Ingredientson January 22, 2020 at 9:46 am
The ordinance bans sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which studies have found can contribute to coral bleaching. Bradley, however, argues that sunscreens are critical to ...
- Corals' partnership with microalgae helps in stressful times but there's a trade-offon January 21, 2020 at 10:13 am
like elevated seawater temperatures that cause coral bleaching. "We wanted to know more about how these symbionts affected corals and whether trade offs existed for corals harboring different ...
- Soft coral around 2 Seychelles islands suffered less than feared in 2015-17 warming, study findson January 19, 2020 at 11:02 pm
The changes in the type and condition of coral cover on the shallow reefs around D'Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll were documented in a study starting after the global bleaching episode in 2015 and ...
- Coral Meals Come With Side Order of Microplasticson January 19, 2020 at 6:00 am
When this happens, coral bleaching and eventual death can occur. Don’t like ads? Become a supporter and enjoy The Good Men Project ad free But some corals have shifted their diets to feed on tiny ...
- Rosenstiel School partners with the MSC Foundation to help save coral reefson January 17, 2020 at 4:07 pm
VIRGINIA KEY, Fla. — Call them super corals—coral reefs so strong and resilient they can survive mass bleaching events and diseases that destroy weaker corals. “Even among the more sensitive species, ...
- Sound waves: The ocean’s music holds the answer to restoring dying coral reefson January 17, 2020 at 11:01 am
It can take 15-25 years for a reef to recover from a bleaching event. The noise makers on coral reefs include all manner of fishes and invertebrates. Coral reef fishes produce a wide range of low ...
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