Research highlight

Climate science: Bleaching causes grief to the Great Barrier Reef


March 16, 2017

Immediate action to reduce global warming is needed to protect coral reefs from severe bleaching events, according to research published in this week’s Nature. A detailed analysis of the Great Barrier Reef over the past two decades shows that extreme heat is the key driver of mass bleaching. As temperatures continue to rise, further bleaching events are likely, which may push the reef system beyond recovery.

Rising sea surface temperatures due to global warming have triggered major bleaching events in tropical coral reefs, and this damage can be potentially fatal to these delicate ecosystems. The most severe event in 2016, driven by record temperatures in the 2015-2016 El Nino event, bleached over 90% of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef.

To understand more about the effects of climate change on reefs, Terry Hughes and colleagues assessed three major bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef in 1998, 2002 and 2016. By analysing individual reefs, the authors determine why some corals are more prone to bleaching than others. They find that the distinctive geographical footprint of bleaching is primarily driven by patterns of sea temperatures; in general, unbleached reefs were located towards the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, where waters are generally cooler. Local management of reef fisheries and water quality offered little to no protection against extreme heat, but the authors note that these efforts may help these ecosystems to recover from bleaching events. However, it is unlikely that the Great Barrier Reef will ever fully recover from the severe bleaching that occurred in 2016, and the security of coral reefs requires urgent and rapid global action to curb future warming, the authors conclude.

doi: 10.1038/nature21707

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