This winter (Dec 2019 – Feb 2020) has been the second warmest winter ever recorded. It’s only surpassed by the winter of 2015-2016, which was an El Niño year. Back in 2016, the water got so hot that half the Great Barrier Coral Reef died. Almost a third of all marine life rely on coral at some point in their life cycle. The Great Barrier Coral Reef alone is home to over 1,500 species of fish. With another hot winter, scientists are concerned that the Coral Reef has just experienced the most widespread bleaching to date.
So how does coral bleaching happen? As the climate crisis drives up the water temperature, it gets too hot to be able to sustain life. This, in turn, stresses out the algae living inside the coral. In response, the coral will push out the algae, which turns it completely white. Coral and algae have a symbiotic relationship. The algae are the corals’ primary food source. So when the algae are pushed out, it leaves the coral without food and vulnerable.
Dr. Mark Eakin, a coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Watch, warns that “if we do not deal with climate change quickly […] we are going to continue to see more severe and more frequent bleaching, and we are going to see the loss of coral reefs in much of the world.” Although coral bleaching does not necessarily kill the coral, it makes it vulnerable to further injury due to a lack of nutrients, which can lead to death. This can lead to a domino effect that harms thousands of species of marine life.
The bleaching event that is happening now is affecting more areas than ever before. Scientists are currently monitoring the reef through the Coral Reef Watch, which uses remote sensing and modeling. They’re finding that although the bleaching isn’t killing as many corals as the 2016 event did, there are more areas affected and bleached than ever before. In 2016 more coral died, but it was concentrated on a few hotspots. Today, an estimated 1,500 miles are affected by bleaching.
Before the worldwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our greenhouse-gas emissions have been on the rise and nowhere near meeting the goals set in the 2015 Paris Accord. A just-released NOAA report states that there is a 75% chance that 2020 will become the warmest year on record, beating out 2016. (There is also a 99.9% chance that 2020 will be a top 5 warmest year on record.) As the Northern Hemisphere enters its summer season, we can expect that our oceans will warm up accordingly—with a strong chance of worse annual coral-bleaching than in 2016.
Dr. Eakin believes it would take decades before the coral can heal. However, all is not lost: in a new report published in Nature, researchers from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to Australia and Denmark discussed their best-case scenario. They analyzed what we currently know about marine life and the technology available to us, and found that due to the immense resiliency of ocean life, it can be rebuilt by 2050. The review details that if what we know about climate change is taken seriously, and substantial action is taken, the ecosystem-recovery process could be accelerated. In order to do this, we must do more to protect our ecosystems, minimize pollution, and mitigate the climate crisis.
The cost of doing this is, understandably, high: only concerted efforts from across sectors, governments, and individuals can have any hope of achieving these goals. But the cost of not doing is even greater—the loss of our Blue Planet. As the multinational team of researchers behind this report exhort: “Rebuilding marine life represents a doable Grand Challenge for humanity, an ethical obligation and a smart economic objective to achieve a sustainable future.”
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Photo: Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash