Warm oceans killing coral

by Bryan Walker on December 1, 2010

This has not only been a bad year for the Amazon rainforest, it has also been a year in which coral reefs, the rainforests of the ocean as they are sometimes called, have suffered severe bleaching because of raised ocean temperatures. Not a matter likely to strike the public consciousness. A recent Yale University survey found 75 percent of Americans have not heard of coral bleaching. But the reefs are one of the world’s great ecosystems and they matter enormously.

Mark Eakin, who coordinates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch and is frequently quoted in reports on this year’s bleaching events, explains that coral bleaching happens when ocean temperatures get too warm and stay warm for too long, and the relationship between the coral and the algae gets stressed. This thermal stress to corals, he said, is the highest it’s been since 1998, when 15% of the world’s coral reefs died.

 

“When you have high temperatures, in conjunction with normal high light conditions, the photosynthetic apparatus in the algae starts to poison the coral. They’ll spit them out into the water. When they do this, they lose their colour, look white, which is why they’re called bleached. If that persists for a long time, it can cause the corals to die.”

In July an article in the Telegraph on the coral bleaching events becoming apparent quoted Eakin:

“The bleaching is very strong throughout south east Asia and the central Indian Ocean. The reports are that it is the worst since 1997/1998. This is a really huge event and we are going to see a lot of corals dying.”

Indonesian reefs were badly affected. Some detail is provided in a report from the International Coral Reef Initiative which indicated the extent and severity of bleaching in different areas, and commented on the high rate of coral mortality following the bleaching.

In September Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International, wrote in a Mongabay article of severe wide-scale bleaching in the Philippines. The bleaching has been observed at many sites around the Philippines featuring mass mortality of corals including the coral triangle outside the Philippines. He considers this environmental catastrophe will probably be considered the most damaging bleaching event ever recorded in the Philippines, surpassing the big one of 1998.

“Prior to this year’s bleaching, it was estimated that about 85 percent of the reefs have been damaged or destroyed in the Philippines, now the current estimate is likely to be close to 95 percent.”

The Telegraph article noted scientists in Thailand have reported reefs suffering 90% of their corals being bleached and up to 20% of the corals dead. Olivia Durkin, who is leading the bleaching monitoring at the Centre for Biodiversity in Peninsular Thailand, said: “This year’s severe coral bleaching has the potential to be the worst on record.”

In June The Maldives reported the most serious incidence of coral bleaching since the major 1998 El Niño-event that destroyed most of the country’s shallow reef coral. Since then there has been gradual reef recovery but the 2010 event will be at least a major setback.

Eakin warned in September that this year had the potential to be also one of the worst bleaching seasons for some reefs in the Caribbean. It follows hard on the heels of the 2005 bleaching which caused record losses to Caribbean reefs, according to a collaborative study published a couple of weeks ago.  More than 80 percent of surveyed corals bleached and over 40 percent of the total surveyed died as a result of the 2005 event. It will be a while before the effects of this year’s bleaching can be measured, but it is already apparent that in some locations this year’s event is worse than the event in 2005. Not only are temperatures causing further damage to reefs hit hard during the 2005 event, but new locations have also been impacted.

Eakin’s comment on the release of the study of the 2005 impacts:

“This severe, widespread bleaching and mortality will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for reef ecosystems, and events like this are likely to become more common as the climate warms.”

Bleaching is a consequence of a warming ocean, but it’s not the only adverse effect of global warming on corals. The other major impact is from the increase in ocean acidification as carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. The double whammy is very clearly explained by Australian scientist and coral reef expert John Veron in his 2009 lecture to the Royal Society. I summarised his content in this post last year, and suggest any readers who’d like a longer explanation of what bleaching and acidification mean for the future of coral reefs take a look at it. The link to the video of the lecture provided in the post is outdated, but this link will get you there if you want to hear him in person. He is sombre about the outlook for coral reefs if greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, and nothing that has happened this year suggests he is getting it wrong.

Polar warming, Amazon drought, coral reefs bleaching and dying: I’ve gathered material for posts on all three of them within the past week. They are all sending out danger signals. They all threaten massive effects which cannot but have drastic consequences for humanity if they continue. And they’re only part of what threatens from climate change. They ought to have us scurrying to do what we are still able to do to prevent them developing further. The Cancún conference should be charged with a sense of high urgency.

I found myself applauding our Prime Minister when he said on Sunday that nothing less than the future of underground coal mining in New Zealand rests on the investigation into the Pike River tragedy. “We can’t put people into mines that are dangerous.” I also found myself wondering how that sentiment would go down with some of our economic interests. I thought John Key was absolutely right, and I presume in saying it he was not unaware of the economic implications. I guess I needn’t spell out the obvious parallel with the dangers from climate change and the perspective they put on the protests that economic interests mustn’t be harmed by climate change measures.

Johann Hari, in the eloquent article Gareth has already drawn attention to, wrote, “At Cancún, the real question will be carefully ignored by delegates keen to preserve big business as usual.”  It’s the wrong choice, Hari points out. But as he also says it’s not too late to change.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

TBwood December 1, 2010 at 11:30 am

re; coal mining statement by JK… I don’t think it means what you think it means. I believe it is a pre-emptive signal that open cast will be the preferred option from here on.

Bryan Walker December 1, 2010 at 12:08 pm

No, I didn’t intend to draw conclusions about all mining. What interested me in his comment was the implied value he was placing on human life compared with what some would regard as the economic imperatives driving enterprises such as underground coal mining. Nor do I think he is yet likely to pay too much attention to the parallel I drew. Nevertheless it’s there.

Dappledwater December 1, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Polar warming, Amazon drought, coral reefs bleaching and dying

2010 has also seen: monumental flooding in Pakistan, a record heatwave in Russia (1 in 10,000 year event?), highest number of heat records in a single year (19 countries so far), record Greenland Ice sheet melt, lowest Arctic sea ice volume on record, record cold temperatures in Britain.

Yup, things sure are unraveling fast.

Watching the deniers December 1, 2010 at 11:46 am

..and the real tragedy is that none of this makes into the “mainstream” media. Occasionally such news is reported in an article a few paragraphs long, buried in the “World” section.

The media have failed to report this.

Nigel Taptiklis December 1, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Waiting for the crony media to report in the public interest is synonymous with waiting for Governments to govern in the long-term interest of the people.

There are other ways to inform and act, and we must use, develop and refine these. Governments and the crony media will shift as and when the transition occurs. But they will follow not lead.

Make haste my little hobbits, the darkness nears.

Nigel Taptiklis December 1, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Waiting for the crony media to report in the public interest is synonymous with waiting for Governments to govern in the long-term interest of the people.

There are other ways to inform and act, and we must use, develop and refine these. Governments and the crony media will shift as and when the transition occurs. But they will follow not lead.

Make haste my little hobbits, the darkness nears. Soon it will be too late.

Tom Bennion December 1, 2010 at 11:44 pm

NZ seeking special accounting for land use in Cancun. Balancing the books on our way to 4 degrees:
http://solveclimatenews.com/news/20101201/logging-loophole-under-attack-cancun-climate-talks

“New Zealand aims to slash emissions across its economy by 10 to 20 percent by 2020. But the LULUCF incentive would allow the logging giant to cut down more trees and keep the emissions rise off the books.

The result would be a 45 percent increase in New Zealand’s emissions, instead of a reduction, the analysis said.

Nearly every Annex I nation backs the loophole, though none would benefit as much as New Zealand.”

adelady December 2, 2010 at 1:23 am

Why am I not surprised?

Joe Fone December 2, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Yes and here’s the “evidence”: “World May Post Warmest Year as U.K. Met Office Adjusts a Decade of Data” – UK Met Office.

Good on them! I mean where would we be without ADJUSTMENTS to provide “evidence” of “catastrophic manmade global warming”?

Oh I know… there wouldn’t be a looming “catastrophe” to worry about now would there?

And we can’t have that!

bill December 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Don’t forget folks, a few simple ‘red clicks’ and the irrelevant pain is gone!

Joe Fone December 2, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Good on you Bill! Can’t stand the heat? You know what to do. You just want to play in the sandpit with your chums don’t you?

Thomas December 3, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I can only agree with the sentiment on corral reefs. I have seen the devastation of the 1998 event with my own eyes, having dived on the same reefs before and after and I can tell how horrific the changes were.
If the general public could see this with their own eyes people everywhere would be totally horrified.
Its like you would take a forest you can see from your window and kill every single tree leaving a dead wasteland. If some event would do this to people’s back yard forests up and down the country we would have a revolt on the streets.
But because it happens a few meters under the water and the sea is looks as blue and beautiful as before, people do not care. Tourists visiting these reefs will still think they should be amazed by seeing a fish here and there and will mistake green slime covered long dead corral rocks for what once existed there. Its a tragedy!

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