Coral Countdown: Groundbreaking Study Finds Time’s Up To Save Reefs

2018-01-09T16:36:17+00:00 January 9, 2018|
(Credit: Reinhard Dirscherl\ Getty Images)

(Credit: Reinhard Dirscherl Getty Images)

Remember the cold War-era Doomsday Clock that counts down the minutes to midnight and nuclear Armageddon? It’s time for a Coral Clock.

(From Oceans Deeply/ By Todd Woody) — A first-of-its-kind study published Thursday has found that the coral bleaching phenomenon that devastated reefs worldwide in 2015–2016 is now the new normal, accelerating at a rate that prevents the recovery of unique ecosystems before the next heat wave hits. Ultimately, few if any reefs will be left untouched.

Twenty-five coral scientists collaborated on the study, published in Science, assembling and analyzing records of 612 bleaching events that struck at 100 reef locations around the world between 1980 and 2016. Virtually unknown before 1980, bleaching occurs when water temperatures exceed corals’ tolerance and the organisms expel now-toxic algae that supply their nutrition and palette of eye-popping colors in exchange for shelter. The symbiotic bond severed, reefs – which harbor a quarter of marine species and are the source of food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people – turn a ghostly white. Deprived of food, corals can die unless the ocean cools. In recent decades, as climate change has raised water temperatures, the El Niño weather pattern that periodically warms the ocean has intensified the impact and reach of bleaching events.

But soon, if not now, the researchers concluded, there will likely be little respite for reefs, even when El Niño is replaced by its cooler sister, El Niña. In fact, the scientists found, even cooling El Niña’s today are now warmer than the hot El Niño’s of 30 years ago.

“Our analysis indicates that we are already approaching a scenario in which every hot summer, with or without an El Niño event, has the potential to cause bleaching and mortality at a regional scale,” the scientists wrote. “The time between recurrent events is increasingly too short to allow a full recovery of mature coral assemblages, which generally takes from 10 to 15 years for the fastest growing species and far longer for the full complement of life histories and morphologies of older assemblages.”

“Areas that have so far…

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