The Great Barrier Reef, a natural wonder that was once full of life, has just had a major coral bleaching event, according to scientists who have taken aerial photographs of hundreds of individual reefs, the Guardian reported.
According to NBC News, the entire Great Barrier Reef is suffering from unprecedented heat stress. This bleaching event is the third in five years, and questions remain about corals’ ability to recover from the constant rush of changing sea conditions.
“This has never happened before,” said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch program in College Park, Maryland, the NBC News reported. “We are in a completely unknown area.”
Bleaching agents do not necessarily kill the corals, but make them extremely susceptible to diseases caused by bacteria or viruses. The bleaching that occurs in response to abnormal conditions such as heat or increased acidity in the water, according to NBC News, is forcing corals to release the tiny photosynthetic algae that live in their tissues and are responsible for their color.
The previous two bleaching events related to heat stress were in 2016 and 2017. Scientists say that the frequency of heat-induced bleaching is a direct result of the climate crisis, which poses problems for the vitality of the reef as the corals do not have enough time to recover and grow again, according to NBC News.
The scientists who perform the aerial photography come from the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.
Terry Hughes, who runs the center, told The Guardian that after three days of the planned nine-day survey: “We know this is a mass bleaching event and it is a difficult one. We know enough now [the bleaching] is more serious than in 1998 and 2002. We do not yet know what will happen in 2016 and 2017. “
Global warming is a huge threat to the future of coral reefs around the world. The Guardian reported that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded from published evidence that much of the tropical coral reef would disappear even if warming were limited to the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 1.2 degrees Celsius would be exposed to “a very high risk”.
Hughes told NBC News that only five bleaching events were recorded on the Great Barrier Reef. The first was 1998, followed by 2002, then 2016, 2017 and this year, which was a worrying pattern.
“The gap between one event and the next is narrowing, not only for the Great Barrier Reef but also for the fronts in the tropics,” Hughes told NBC News. “This is important, because it takes about a decade for even the fastest growing corals to be reasonably healthy again. The slowest take several decades.”
While past bleaching events such as those in 2002 and 2016 were determined by weather events in El Niño, this only happened because the Australian summer was too hot.
“We no longer need El Niño to trigger a bleaching event – we just need a hot summer,” Eakin told NBC News. “And summers are getting hotter and hotter because of global warming. In itself, that’s amazing.”
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