A glimmer of hope for the world's coral reefs

December 10, 2018

The future of the world's coral reefs is uncertain, as the impact of global heating continues to escalate. However, according to a study published today in Nature Climate Change, the response of the Great Barrier Reef to extreme temperatures in 2017 was markedly different to one year earlier, following two back-to-back bouts of coral bleaching. Remarkably, corals that bleached and survived 2016 were more resistant in 2017 to a recurrence of hot conditions.

"Dead corals don't bleach for a second time. The north lost millions of heat-sensitive corals in 2016, and most of the survivors were the tougher species. As a result of bleaching, the mix of species is changing very rapidly," said lead author Prof Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE), headquartered at James Cook University.

"We were astonished to find less bleaching in 2017, because the temperatures were even more extreme than the year before," he said.

The new research highlights the extent of damage, or "geographic footprint" of multiple coral bleaching events across the 2,300 km length of the world-heritage listed area.

The back-to-back heatwaves bring the total number of mass bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef to four over the past two decades (in 1998, 2002, 2016 and 2017). The scientists found that only 7% of the Great Barrier Reef escaped bleaching entirely since 1998, and after the 2017 event, 61% of reefs have now been severely bleached at least once.

"We found, using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) satellite-based coral bleaching tools, that corals in the north of the Great Barrier Reef were exposed to the most heat stress in 2016. A year later, the central region saw the most prolonged heating," said co-author Dr Mark Eakin, from NOAA's Coral Reef Watch program, in Maryland, USA.

The southern third of the Great Barrier Reef was cooler in both years due to local weather conditions, and escaped with only minor bleaching.

"It's only a matter of time before we see another mass-bleaching event, triggered by the next marine heatwave, driven by global heating," said co-author Dr Andrew Hoey of Coral CoE at James Cook University. "One of the worst possible scenarios is we'll see these southern corals succumb to bleaching in the near future."

"The outcome in 2017 depended on the conditions experienced by the corals one year earlier. We called that 'ecological memory,' and show that these repeating events are now acting together in ways that we didn't expect," said Prof Hughes.

"We've never seen back-to-back mass coral bleaching before on the Great Barrier Reef, in two consecutive summers. The combined footprint has killed close to half of the corals on two-thirds of the world's largest reef system," said Dr Hoey.

"We need urgent global action on greenhouse emissions to save the world's coral reefs. Australia should be - but regrettably isn't - at the forefront of tackling global heating," said Prof Hughes.
-end-


ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies

Related Coral Reefs Articles from Brightsurf:

The cement for coral reefs
Coral reefs are hotspots of biodiversity. As they can withstand heavy storms, they offer many species a safe home.

Palau's coral reefs: a jewel of the ocean
The latest report from the Living Oceans Foundation finds Palau's reefs had the highest coral cover observed on the Global Reef Expedition--the largest coral reef survey and mapping expedition in history.

Shedding light on coral reefs
New research published in the journal Coral Reefs generates the largest characterization of coral reef spectral data to date.

Uncovering the hidden life of 'dead' coral reefs
'Dead' coral rubble can support more animals than live coral, according to University of Queensland researchers trialling a high-tech sampling method.

Collaboration is key to rebuilding coral reefs
The most successful and cost-effective ways to restore coral reefs have been identified by an international group of scientists, after analyzing restoration projects in Latin America.

Coral reefs show resilience to rising temperatures
Rising ocean temperatures have devastated coral reefs all over the world, but a recent study in Global Change Biology has found that reefs in the Eastern Tropical Pacific region may prove to be an exception.

Genetics could help protect coral reefs from global warming
The research provides more evidence that genetic-sequencing can reveal evolutionary differences in reef-building corals that one day could help scientists identify which strains could adapt to warmer seas.

Tackling coral reefs' thorny problem
Researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) have revealed the evolutionary history of the crown-of-thorns starfish -- a predator of coral that can devastate coral reefs.

The state of coral reefs in the Solomon Islands
The ''Global Reef Expedition: Solomon Islands Final Report'' summarizes the foundation's findings from a monumental research mission to study corals and reef fish in the Solomon Islands and provides recommendations on how to preserve these precious ecosystems into the future.

Mysterious glowing coral reefs are fighting to recover
A new study by the University of Southampton has revealed why some corals exhibit a dazzling colorful display, instead of turning white, when they suffer 'coral bleaching' -- a condition which can devastate reefs and is caused by ocean warming.

Read More: Coral Reefs News and Coral Reefs Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.