Rising seawater temperatures continue to trigger coral bleaching, which has put Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in grave danger. Research published in Nature journal revealed that massive bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 resulted in an unexpected level of destruction. This was the third such event, the other two occurring in 1998 and 2002.
Although scientists are not absolutely sure what has caused higher seawater temperatures, they have made some conclusions:
Water quality and fishing pressure had minimal effect on the unprecedented bleaching in 2016, suggesting that local protection of reefs affords little or no resistance to extreme heat. Similarly, past exposure to bleaching in 1998 and 2002 did not lessen the severity of bleaching in 2016.
Terry P. Hughes, director of the center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia, was the lead author of this recent research. He told the New York Times:
“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 — literally two-thirds of the reefs were dying and are now dead.”
This Catastrophe Reaches Beyond the Great Barrier Reef
Scientists believe that the state of coral reefs is a sign of the “health of the seas.” Marine geologist Justin Ries, associate professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences, explains:
“These results from the Great Barrier Reef may foretell accelerated warming in other reef systems, such as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, in the Caribbean, as well as other coastal ecosystems, such as shallow shelves, carbonate banks, atolls, and estuaries…”
When coastal ecosystems die off, so do many of the animals and plants that live there. Millions of people, especially in less developed countries, rely on the abundance of these areas. Ries elaborates on the other effects:
“Corals support tourism, provide protective barriers to shorelines, create spatially complex reef systems that support biodiversity, provide nursery grounds for commercial fisheries, and harbor organisms that may provide antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer compounds in the future.”
Consequently, immediate global action to curb thermal warming is essential to secure a future for coral reefs and other delicate coastal ecosystems.
Action and Recovery
In Australia, the government has made efforts to improve sea water quality. It has also limited industry development in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, the new research shows that improvements in water quality may not be enough considering high seawater temperatures. In his New York Times interview, Hughes stated:
“The reefs in muddy water were just as fried as those in pristine water. That’s not good news in terms of what you can do locally to prevent bleaching – the answer to that is not very much at all. You have to address climate change directly.”
So what can we do? Can everyday people help? In his tweet below, Prof. Hughes stated, “Vote for honest politicians?”
— Terry Hughes (@ProfTerryHughes) April 19, 2016
This is yet another global challenge now face as all of humanity, without a clear answer on how to address it. Can nature keep up with our pace of destruction?
The Resilience of Nature
Although many may feel this situation is hopeless, nature can still surprise us. In 2014, Peter Mumby, marine biologist and professor at the Marine Spatial Ecology Lab of the University of Queensland, Australia, made a promising discovery. Mumby surveyed a coral reef in French Polynesia that was affected by the 1998 bleaching episode. He found a vast majority of the region’s Porites coral, one of the hardiest of coral species, made a full recovery by 2005. Originally, scientists predicted it would take the Porites nearly 100 years to recover.
“It makes us realise that some corals have a number of strategies to cope with stress that we don’t understand very well. That is good news and we now need to understand exactly how they do it.”
Scientists now believe that environmental conditions can influence whether bleached or damaged coral crumbles completely or if it has a chance of survival. James Gilmour, a coral ecologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, in Crawley, Western Australia, adds:
“What we didn’t know is that there are these tiny, tiny bits of tissue remaining and that tissue can grow quite quickly. All of a sudden, you might see coral following a disturbance, when you thought it was 100 per cent dead.”
Consequently, humanity must now face its new obligations. Are we able to improve modern lifestyle habits to give nature the chance to recover? Furthermore, are world leaders able to address the bigger challenges resulting from over-consumption of fossil fuel? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
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