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
Coral bleaching observed near Mandapam, Keezhakkarai, Palk Bay
on May 22, 2019 at 3:09 am
When a coral bleaches, it does not die but comes pretty close to it. Some of the corals may survive the experience and recover once the sea surface temperature returns to normal levels. The National ... […]
‘Bright white skeletons’: some Western Australian reefs have the lowest coral cover on record
on May 21, 2019 at 12:41 pm
Diving on the remote coral reefs in the north of Western Australia during the world’s worst bleaching event in 2016, the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was like diving into a warm bath ... […]
Corals bleaching, choking in Persian Gulf
on May 21, 2019 at 12:46 am
Oceanologist, Hamid Rezaei, has explained that temperature rise resulted from climate change is the leading cause of coral bleaching. Why and how corals lose their color? The corals that form the ... […]
Thousands of young coral being moved to deeper water at Maya Bay
on May 20, 2019 at 11:38 pm
Coral bleaching and the annual monsoon are the only threat to the ongoing recuperation of Maya Bay, now that tourists have been away for a year, and probably another two years as well. Maya Bay, on ... […]
Coral bleaching event underway in French Polynesia despite no El Nino
on May 20, 2019 at 5:13 pm
Widespread coral bleaching has been reported in the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti and Moorea, even though there was no El Nino event this year. More than 50 per cent of coral reefs around Tahiti ... […]
Corals bleaching off Pattani
on May 20, 2019 at 1:28 am
“The sea water temperature is at 31 degree Celsius, which is over the limit for coral bleaching.” “Most of them are corals which are bleaching are in shallow areas. This means that sunlight has ... […]
Villages feel coral bleaching impacts
on May 19, 2019 at 1:28 pm
AT least four villages in the Mamanuca have started to experience the effects of coral bleaching, says Mamanuca Environment Society (MES) project manager Marica Vakacola. Ms Vakacola was part of a ... […]
Villages already experiencing effects of coral bleaching
on May 19, 2019 at 6:06 am
AT least four villages in the Mamanucas have started to feel the effects of coral bleaching, says Mamanuca Environment Society (MES) project manager Marica Vakacola. Ms Vakacola was part of a coral ... […]
Good relationships under the sea could hold key to coral bleaching
on May 15, 2019 at 7:00 pm
Good relationships are important, especially when researchers believe that type of relationship might be crucial to help prevent coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Scientists from the ... […]
Is coral gardening the front line in the fight against climate change?
on May 15, 2019 at 12:48 pm
“Bleaching”, which is another word for coral dying, is pervasive. I’ve been lucky enough to see some insanely beautiful coral reefs, but my personal response, when I see one that is dying or dead, is ... […]
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