93% of Australia's Great Barrier Reef Suffering Coral Bleaching
© 2017 by Linda Moulton Howe
— “We didn't expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef
for another 30 years. In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs in which literally
two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead.”
- Terry Hughes, Ph.D., Prof. and Dir. of Australia's Government-Funded Center for
Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville City, QLD, Australia
— “I've been photographing this area of the reef for several years now
and what we’re seeing is unprecedented. ... nearly 100%
of the corals are bleaching, and who knows how many will recover?”
- Brett Monroe Garner, Photographer, Greenpeace Int'l.
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is suffering its worst coral bleaching
ever recorded with 93% damaged to dying. Image by AFP.
The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia, (red underline)
is the largest living organism on Earth, even visible from outer space. The 1400-mile-long (2,300 km) ecosystem is made up of some 3,000 individual reefs produced from over 600 types of hard
and soft coral. Coral reefs are not plants. Corals are the product of billions of tiny organisms
known as coral polyps. Even though coral reefs make up only 1/10th of 1% of the Earth's
surface, the reefs are where 25% of all marine life live for protection.
March 30, 2017 Atlanta, Georgia - The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland in northeastern Australia, is the largest living organism on Earth, even visible from outer space. The 1400-mile-long (2,300 km) ecosystem is made up of some 3,000 individual reefs produced from over 600 types of hard and soft coral. Coral reefs are not plants. Corals are the product of billions of tiny organisms
known as coral polyps. Even though coral reefs make up only 1/10th of 1% of the Earth's surface, the reefs are where 25% of all marine life live for protection.
Unfortunately, humans threaten coral reefs with overfishing and destructive fishing, water pollution, global warming temperatures and rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that are changing ocean chemistry. In some places, reefs have been entirely destroyed, and in many places only a few coral reefs still survive.
Two years ago in August 2015, at the Goldschmidt Conference in Prague, Prof. Peter Sale from the University of Windsor in Canada presented his analysis of Earth's marine geochemistry. He said, “We have lost 90% of our commercial fish biomass since the 1940s ... and I find it very unlikely that coral reefs as I knew them in the mid-1960s will still be found anywhere on this planet by mid-century 2050.”
Great Barrier Reef Coral in 2016-2017
Bleaching and Dying At Unprecedented Rate
Scientists knew that in 2016, there was wide scale damage to corals in Australia's Great Barrier Reef attributed to unusually warm air and water temperatures. 2016 brought the highest sea surface temperatures across the Great Barrier Reef ever recorded. It is the third time in 18 years that the World Heritage reef, famous for a huge variety of marine life, has experienced mass bleaching in the very hot years of 1998 and 2002.
Bleaching occurs when abnormal environmental conditions, such as warmer sea temperatures, cause corals to expel their tiny, photosynthetic algae that normally gives corals their color. When the algae is ejected, the corals turn white, which is why the phenomenon is called “bleaching.”
Recently in 2017, scientists returned to survey how the Great Barrier corals might be recovering. The depressing answer: even worse than 2016. Nearly 100% of corals in many parts of the Australian reef are now bleached and dying. Where there had been mass bleaching in 2016, scientists are now finding that more corals have since died.
This photo from March 2017 shows a bleached reef near Lizard Island on the Great Barrier
Reef where just 40% of coral had survived in 2016. Six months later in March 2017, most of
the corals are dying or dead, down to only 5% still surviving. Image © 2017 by Getty Images.
Scientists who returned in early 2017 six months after a 2016 mass bleaching event
found many more corals have since died, while nearly 100% of coral in some sections
of the Great Barrier Reef are severely bleached. Image © 2017 by Getty Images.
Scientists survey in early 2017 a severely bleached coral reef near
Lizard Island, Queensland, Australia. Image © 2017 by Getty Images.
Compare Great Barrier Reef Destruction
to A Few Still-Pristine Coral Beds
Perhaps the most pristine archipelago in the Pacific: five remote isles named Caroline (commonly called Millennium), Flint, Vostok, Malden, and Starbuck, together known as the southern Line Islands. The waters around these uninhabited specks of land, located 1,500 to 2,100 miles south of Hawaii, are among the last truly wild places in an overexploited ocean.
Red Snappers swim above a pristine coral bed in the Southern Line Islands about 2,000
miles south of Hawaii. The remote islands provide a reference point for beautiful, healthy
coral reefs of the past versus the bleached and dying corals in so many other places
of the world today. Image by Enric Sala, National Geographic.
Another pristine coral bed is Kingman Reef a thousand miles southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
Giant Clams thriving in a healthy patch reef in a Kingman Reef lagoon includes an
abundance of giant clams. Kingman Reef is part of a chain of Pacific atolls and islands
(called the Line Islands) that straddles the Equator 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers)
south of Hawaii. Image by Enric Sala, National Geographic.
On March 15, 2017, The New York Times headlined in a 5-page article, “Large Sections of Australia's Great Reef Are Now Dead, Scientists Find.” The Great Barrier situation is dire, according to the director of Australia's government-funded center for coral reef studies at James Cook University. Professor Terry Hughes is the lead author of a journal Nature paper in which he reports, “We didn't expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years. In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs in which literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead.”
In aerial surveys, Prof. Hughes found that in one long stretch of the Great Barrier Reef north of Port Douglas, 67% of the corals had died and in some patches, mortality had reached 83%.
Another climate and coral expert in the United States is Prof. Kim Cobb, Ph.D., at the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Prof. Cobb saw extensive coral devastation in 2016 in a place where no one had expected corals to be affected yet — the Republic of Kiribati between Hawaii and French Polynesia in the Pacific. She points out that ocean temperatures are going up each year and that catastrophic coral destruction might be inevitable.
Kim Cobb, Ph.D., Georgia Power Chair and ADVANCE Prof. of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Georgia: “The hardest hit portion of the Great Barrier Reef was about a quarter of its total extent, which is again, you know, a huge portion of reef there. You're talking about 30 to 70 percent mortality across stretches of that reef.
PROFESSOR COBB, IF 2016 TEMPERATURES ARE EXCEEDED IN 2017, 2018, AS WE ARE GOING FORWARD IN THE REST OF THIS CENTURY IN GLOBAL WARMING THAT IS NOT GOING TO BE TURNED AROUND, THEN IS THE PROJECTION THAT TEMPERATURES HIGHER NEXT YEAR, NEXT YEAR, NEXT YEAR WILL KILL THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IN AUSTRALIA?
Let's assume we understand where ocean temperatures are going, then yes, they're only going one direction. They're pretty much only going up. Maybe if not this year to next year, then over the next decade to decade to decade for sure. So yes, that's a very relevant question, but I have to insert a word of caution in that we've never conducted this experiment before. We have now this important data point that brings into scope the level of destruction that can be experienced on the Great Barrier Reef over a single year.
It was actually a couple of years of pretty high stress on the reef. So we really have to take this lesson and pick it apart and then try to understand why some corals even in this hardest hit region seem to manage just fine. And so I speak from my own personal experience having dove on a reef last year in the central Pacific Ocean at a very small island I've been working on for 20 years. I watched 85 percent of that reef succumb to death during the ocean temperature extreme, the very same one that stressed the Great Barrier Reef. And yet, amongst the rubble of that reef were five percent of the corals that acted like nothing had happened. And they hold the keys to resilience that we need to understand.
If you ask me how did they survive? I will tell you, I don't yet know. But we're on it, and we have a lot to learn. Again, taking this train wreck and turning it into opportunity for understanding. I would think it's premature to say that we can project a hundred percent loss of the Great Barrier Reef at this point. Nature is much more mysterious than our understanding allows right now.
IS THERE ANY WAY THAT SCIENTISTS CAN TAKE THE FIVE PERCENT CORAL THAT IS SURVIVING IN THESE RISING TEMPERATURES AND EXPAND ITS ABILITY TO SPREAD IN THE GREAT BARRIER REEF AND OTHER REEFS THAT ARE DYING?
Well, this is exactly the hope and the promise of a whole new field of science fiction coral research, which tries to take these strains of resilient corals and breed a new generation of temperature resistant corals in tanks that we can control their conditions. And there's a colleague of mine working at the University of Hawaii on this. That's all she does is try to engineer the corals of the future and make them more resistant and try to understand what's driving their resilience. And so the hope is when we find ourselves in need of reseeding reefs that have been fundamentally compromised and destroyed from a natural perspective, that we might be able to breed these "super corals," she calls them, that could seed the reefs of the future. But this, I have to stress, while I believe it is the great hope and cause for investment in that kind of research, I must stress that this is still in its early phases.
Consequences to Earth If
Great Barrier Reef Died?
CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US WHAT THE CONSEQUENCES WOULD BE IF ALL OF THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IN AUSTRALIA DID DIE?
Oh, goodness. I don't think that anybody would be able to draw a picture of that. We know, as scientists, the central role that these large reef systems play in our ocean's ecosystem across so many different levels. Obviously, the Australians are deeply invested in the function and the beauty of their reef as a World Heritage Site. And the entire rest of the planet depends critically on the ocean for a range of ecosystem services. It's almost unthinkable to cripple our ocean functions so intrinsically as would happen with the loss of a reef of that magnitude. So I can only lend those words of fundamental disbelief and worry as to the future of our species without a functioning ocean. That is deeply concerning, and I don't think we know what that future would look like in detail.
SO THE CORAL REEFS AROUND THE WORLD IN ALL OF THE OCEANS ARE FUNDAMENTALLY CRUCIAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF MARINE LIFE IN THE OCEANS?
Yes. They play a variety of key roles. Most notably, they serve as the nurseries for I think it's over 75 percent of the world's fish populations are in some way tied in their life cycle, food chain, to services provided by coral reefs. So that alone is a staggering statistic.
And of course, hundreds of millions of people depending on the protein output from the world's coral reefs as their only source of protein in many cases. We are tied to our oceans, and our oceans are tied to coral reefs. The status of our global fisheries across the board is in a state of critical decline, and we're at a state of overfishing almost every single species that we say we depend on as humans with our economy and our health.
So it's not shocking to me that we have disrupted the entire ocean ecosystem, whether by climate change, which nobody can escape anywhere, even in protected regions, which was one of the critically depressing messages from this article that just came out this week, right, about the corals being bleached and killed by ocean temperatures.
If it's not from climate change, though, it's from these more local stressors having to do with the fishing pressures, coastal management failing to provide critical habitats for these species that we depend so heavily upon. So you're really facing this double whammy across the entire ocean ecosystem, and it becomes really sharply into focus when we have these effects combined to generate the decline of fisheries globally that we have.
IT'S LIKE HUMANITY IS SHOOTING OFF ITS OWN FOOT IF WE END UP DESTROYING THE ENTIRE OCEAN SYSTEM THAT SO MANY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, AS YOU POINTED OUT, DEPEND UPON MARINE FOOD. AND ARE THERE COMPUTER PROJECTIONS IN ANY LAB THAT YOU KNOW THAT ARE TRYING TO FEED IN THE DECLINE OF POPULATION NUMBERS FROM TUNA AND SHARKS TO HERRING AND EVERYTHING ELSE THAT ARE PROJECTING THAT X COULD HAPPEN, MEANING THAT WE REALLY WOULD END UP WITH WHOLE SPECIES EXTINCTIONS?
Oh, I definitely think that the threat of extinction has been on the rise. It can be measured and quantified over the last decade. And some really ground-breaking work published even this year, where they're able to look at extinction rates over the course of the last 100 years, and you can see them ticking up and up and up and up. Now, in the paper they're careful to note that part of this may be due to the effect that we have on our immediate environment through habitat destruction, for example. And that part of it is likely due to stressors that we're only now beginning to be able to measure across the planet having to do with increased acidity of our oceans and decreased oxygen in our oceans, a finding that was just released in the last month by some of my colleagues. And so yes, we are beginning to have some clarity as to the global scale effects of our cumulative activities on the ecosystem as a whole, whether it's the ocean or the terrestrial ecosystem. And yes, we are shooting off our own toes. It's unthinkable that the global public, in the face of news like the Great Barrier Reef, rise up and say, "Enough! It's time to get a plan." We can do it, but we have to act together.
AND THEY WON'T COME BACK AGAIN ONCE THEY'RE GONE.
You can watch extinction unfold on a year by year by year basis. And this is a cost that we might write off. We've written off many extinctions before as a civilization. But this toll is going to keep getting steeper and steeper. And as we erode the functions of our ecosystems further and further, we will not get the services they provide. One of the services that they provide is sucking up a lot of the carbon dioxide that we are putting into the sky.
And so one of the things that we worry about as Earth scientists and climate scientists is that the harm that we are doing to our environment, that we could have control over, is actually going to reduce the capacity of our planet to help us out in solving the problem. And so that's something that I think the average American also needs to know and understand.
Oceans Without Food?
AS THE TEMPERATURES GO UP IN THE AIR AND IN THE WATERS, AND CORAL CONTINUE TO DIE, AND WE ARE OVERFISHING MANY SPECIES, POTENTIALLY TO EXTINCTION — WE ARE GOING TO END UP ON A PLANET WITH MORE THAN 7 BILLION HUMANS BECAUSE THE HUMAN POPULATION IS INCREASING EXPONENTIALLY, AND THAT IF WE ARE PROJECTED TO BE AT 10 BILLION AT SOME POINT IN THIS CENTURY, AND THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO EAT IN THE OCEANS, WE HAVE SHOT NOT ONLY OUR FOOT OFF, WE'VE SHOT OURSELVES.
Yeah. These are really questions about our civilization as a whole. In an era of threats that are going to tackle our ability to provide fresh drinking water to the humans on our planet, food to the humans on our planet, to be so blatantly wasteful of so much bounty is staggering, and I think something that our grandchildren will look back on and say, "How could you?! You had choices. We could have been left with more choices." So this is a fundamentally moral issue for me personally as a mother to four children who will inherit this planet in the very near future, and their children's children, I'm certainly trying to do everything I can to bring this message beyond the halls of my laboratory in my university so that Americans can understand that we have choices to make, and our children will live with those choices. And we need to think about that.”
Earth's Oceans Are Warming 13% Faster
Than Expected, and Accelerating
In the past 37 years since 1980, carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere has increased by more than 40%. That's like putting a blanket around the Earth and keeping the heat in. 90% of the extra heat is absorbed by the oceans.
In a March 10, 2017, press release about their paper published in Science Advances, a team of climate scientists wrote: "Higher sea surface temperatures are continually reinforced by the extra heat beneath the ocean surface. The oceans are affecting weather and climate through more intense rains. This process is a major reason why 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded at the Earth's surface, beating out 2015, which was the previous record. Additionally 2015 was a year with record hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and wild-fires around the world.
Recent so-called “thousand year floods” in California, the Carolinas, Louisiana and Houston could become a new normal — that no one wants.
Also see: Earthfiles 042916: “Global CO2 Rise Is Changing Ocean Chemistry
and Killing Marine Creatures, While Rising Ocean Temperatures
Are Killing Great Barrier Reef Coral”
For further information about threatened marine life and extinctions, please see reports in the Earthfiles Archive organized in chronological order from 1999 to 2016 ongoing of which a few are listed here.
• 04/29/2016 — Global CO2 Rise Is Changing Ocean Chemistry and Killing Marine Creatures, While Rising Ocean Temperatures Are Killing Great Barrier Reef Coral
• 12/18/2015 — Will New Paris Climate Agreement Be Able to Limit Global Warming to 2 Degrees C. (3.6 deg. F.) Above Pre-Industrial Temperatures?
• 02/25/2010 — Lionfish Invaders Are Eating Up Other Marine Life in Florida Keys, Bahamas and Bermuda
• 11/20/2009 — Red List of Earth Life Facing Extinction Keeps Growing
• 02/26/2009 — Unprecedented Northeast Bat Die-off Spreading Rapidly
• 06/21/2008 — Updated June 25, 2008: Increasingly Acidic Pacific Coast Waters Threaten Marine Life
• 02/29/2008 — Mysterious Bat Deaths in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts
• 12/13/2007 — Update: As CO2 Increases, Carbonic Acid Build Up in Oceans Expected to Kill Off Coral Reefs by 2050
• 04/08/2006 — Recent Caribbean Coral Reef Die-Off Biggest Ever Seen
• 08/14/2004 — Oceans Are Absorbing A Lot of Greenhouse CO2. As Chemistry Changes, What Happens to Sea Life?
• 11/29/2003 — Glaciers Are Melting Around the World So Fast That Water Supplies Could Be Threatened
• 07/19/2003 — Update - Defiance, Missouri T-Pattern Cut in Saplings
• 05/17/2003 — Major Study Reports Only 10% of Large Ocean Fish Remain
• 07/20/2002 — Extinctions of Earth Life Are Accelerating Rapidly
• 06/04/2002 — EPA Admits Humans Burning Fossil Fuels A Big Factor in Global Warming
• 01/05/2002 — Global Warming Update - Could Increasing Carbon Dioxide Gas Be Transformed Into Limestone?
• 12/22/2001 — Scientists Warn That Climate and Earth Life Can Change Rapidly
• 10/30/2000 — Science, Environment and Medical Updates
"Ocean Acidification Killing Oysters by Inhibiting Shell Formation," April 2016, Oregon State University: http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/features/acidification/
"Our Changing Climate — the Current Science," November 2015, U. K. Met Office Hadley Centre: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/media/pdf/4/b/Our_changing_climate_-_the_current_science.pdf
NOAA “Coral Bleaching Diving Deeper: Episode 58 – What happens when a coral bleaches?” http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/podcast/dec14/dd58-coral-bleaching.html
"Australian Coal Port Expansion Will Hasten the Great Barrier Reef's Death, Activists Say," December 11, 2013, Inhabitat: http://inhabitat.com/australian-coal-port-expansion-will-hasten-the-great-barrier-reefs-death-activists-say/