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
- These Resorts Are Working to Save the Coral Reefson August 24, 2019 at 4:28 am
causing mutations in the coral or coral bleaching, which kills the coral and strips it of its beautiful color, leaving a dull, white skeleton behind. Many hotels across the world are taking action to ...
- Scientists bracing for major coral bleaching eventon August 24, 2019 at 3:12 am
With warmer than average ocean temperatures, scientists are bracing for a major coral reef bleaching event sometime in the weeks ahead. Read more You're reading a premium story. Read the full story ...
- Even worse coral bleaching expectedon August 24, 2019 at 3:05 am
KAILUA-KONA — Coral bleaching is already occurring in West Hawaii waters, and things are likely to get worse as Hawaii’s reefs enter a major bleaching event within the next two months — if not sooner.
- Hawaii braces for potential mass-coral bleaching eventon August 23, 2019 at 4:51 pm
Current sea surface temperatures are warmer than normal for this time of year and have exceeded the temperatures preceding the catastrophic 2015 bleaching event. Bleached coral is not dead, but ...
- Hawaii scientists fear major coral bleaching as warm ocean temps persiston August 23, 2019 at 3:07 pm
HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii’s coral reefs appear to be entering a major bleaching event, according to new data from the NOAA Coral Reef Watch program. Officials said warm ocean ...
- Sunscreen law in USVI passed to protect coral reefson August 16, 2019 at 8:50 am
The chemicals targeted in the sunscreen ban wash off people's bodies when they swim and cause coral bleaching, which kills the coral, according to advocates of the law. The full ban takes effect on ...
- 'The saddest dive of my life': A diver's before-and-after photos reveal the death of a coral reefon August 13, 2019 at 6:07 am
As our planet and its oceans warm, coral reefs worldwide are experiencing bleaching — when the corals expel their food source and turn ghostly white.
- Scientists studied 2,500 coral reefs to figure out how to save themon August 13, 2019 at 5:14 am
Previously, the Indo-Pacific reefs were also hit by mass coral bleaching and heat stress in 1983, 1998, 2005 and 2010, before the world's most intense, longest and largest bleaching event between 2014 ...
- Largest-of-its-kind coral study offers plan to save the planet's reefson August 12, 2019 at 1:33 pm
After the El Niño event that lasted from 2014 to 2017, which triggered the largest coral bleaching event in modern history, researchers found 450 reefs in 22 countries in the Indo-Pacific survived.
- Largest-ever study of coral communities unlocks global solution to save reefson August 12, 2019 at 12:19 pm
in particular has been devastated by periods of severe heat stress and mass coral bleaching events in 1983, 1998, 2005, 2010, and most recently in the world's longest, largest and most intense ...
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