Sunday, 21 October, 2018

Mass Great Barrier Reef coral die-off after heatwave

Gbr bleaching21 Great Barrier Reef saw huge losses from 2016 heatwave
Steve Townsend | 20 April, 2018, 00:38

According to the study, corals on the northern Great Barrier Reef "experienced a catastrophic die-off" following the 2016 heatwave.

The paper says extreme weather events, caused by man-made climate change, are "rapidly emerging as major contemporary threats to nearly all ecosystems", and suggests that while not all corals will be killed off, the shape and variety will be affected.

Prolonged ocean warming events, known as marine heatwaves, are taking a significant toll on the complex ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef.

"They cooked because the temperatures were so extreme", said Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville.

Although some of the coral has proved resistant to heat waves, those few species won't be able to maintain the diversity that is essential to coral reefs - a hallmark of the Great Barrier Reef and the vast diversity of marine life it sustains. It's here and now. It would still look very different from today.

The consequences were dire: In some areas, up to 90% of the coral population died due to bleaching.

Researchers warn that failure to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels will radically alter tropical reef ecosystems.

"&We; ldquo & & rsquo;re in unchartered territory", Professor Hughes stated, adding, &ldquo depends on how well or badly we handle climate change.

The researchers then reported back dire dispatches about the destruction, documenting coral reefs' surprisingly immediate vulnerability to warming ocean waters. They confirmed the flyover findings with underwater surveys at 104 reefs.

Coral surveyor Margaux Hein swimming over a field of recently dead branching corals on the reef. The mass mortality event at Christmas Island is believed to be one of the worst casualties of the ongoing global bleaching event.

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"Unless humans get climate change under control, the increase in the frequency and intensity of marine heatwaves will destroy most of the coral reefs around the world", Eakin said.

We measure this accumulated heat stress in "degree heating weeks" (DHW) - the number of degrees above the average summer maximum, multiplied by the number of weeks. These two types of fast-growing corals were the most affected, experiencing a massive die off.

Coral bleaching occurs when corals expel the tiny algae (called zooxanthellae) that live inside them and provide their food. "The bleaching will forever change the Barrier Reef".

"There's still a billion corals left, and they're breeding", Hughes said. "We don't know yet where the larvae are going to come from, and in what numbers". They're quite surprisingly low.

"This episode should remind us that there is no reason to expect that climate change impacts should be slow and steady and predictable", she wrote.

Some species, such as staghorns and tabular corals, were particularly susceptible, while dome-shaped porites corals were relatively resilient. The reef is unlikely to avoid additional bleaching events before damaged coals can recover. The longer the coral remains in its bleached state, the less likely it is to recover at all.

Instead, "we were surprised to see about a 25 percent loss of corals in the north that was more or less instantaneous", Hughes said. "To lose one in three corals in just nine months is an incredible shock to the system".

Although it might seem that damage to the Great Barrier Reef mostly affects Australia, this die-off could affect the entire globe.

Still, 1 billion corals have survived.

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