The coral in the Great Barrier Reef are dying.
The world’s largest coral reef system, and considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the iconic GBR is now suffering its worst coral bleaching event in the last 15 years.
— AFP news agency (@AFP) March 21, 2016
Unfortunately, this cannot come as a shock to anyone who’s been paying attention. For years now, scientists have been reporting widespread coral bleaching throughout the Pacific Ocean. The bleaching process occurs when the living coral becomes stressed by changes in water temperature (usually when temperatures go up, but a sudden drop in temperature can have the same effect). The stress causes the coral to expel the symbiotic algae that lives in its tissue and keeps it alive. Without its algae, a coral gradually loses its color and often dies.
Climate scientists have recorded a number of scorching years in the last two decades, but the recent spate of hot months in Australia are “unprecedented,” according to Climate Council chief councillor Tim Flannery.
“These warm conditions throughout the earth now are really having an impact on humanity in so many ways,” he said. “Droughts, enhanced fire conditions, changed rainfall patterns, shrinking glaciers.”
On Sunday, the Climate Council released a report showing “exceptionally long and hot warm spells” in March have broken national records.
— Climate Council (@climatecouncil) March 19, 2016
These record-breaking warm conditions are of course having an effect on the country’s Great Barrier Reef. On Sunday, World Wildlife Fund Australia released video and photographs of the widespread coral bleaching around Lizard Island, located in the north section of the GBR.
“I’m up on Lizard Island right now and witnessing what I’m pretty sure is the worst bleach I’ve ever seen,” said University of Queensland marine researcher Justin Marshall. Marshall attributes the bleaching to the burning of fossil fuels, which has been exacerbated by this year’s El Nino event.
“I’m definitely witnessing the death of some of the Great Barrier Reef,” added Marshall, “but unfortunately we have this unknown figure, how much is going to recover.”
On Sunday, the researcher called on Australia’s Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, to do more to save the reef. On the same day, Hunt engaged in an aerial survey of the GBR and told the press that the coral bleaching threat level will be increased to its highest severity. However, Hunt maintains that the bleaching has yet to reach the extremes of previous years’ outbreaks in 1998 and 2002.
That may change if Australia’s weather continues its upward trend, as several studies indicate it will.
“We do notice a bit of minor bleaching most summers, but this year is exceptional,” Lizard Island researcher Lyle Vail told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Unfortunately we’ve got the perfect storm conditions for coral bleaching. At the moment we’ve got brilliant clear sunny skies, calm conditions, little tidal movement. A lot of that hot water on top of the reef flat is just staying there and cooking the coral.”