Monday, June 20, 2016

Global Coral Bleaching Continues for a Record Third Year

Coral bleaching forecast through September 2016. (Credit: NOAA Coral Reef Watch) Click to Enlarge.
Bad coral reef news seems to be never-ending these days.  Case in point:  on Monday, scientists announced that the world is in for an unprecedented third year of coral bleaching across the globe.

The announcement comes courtesy of NOAA Coral Reef Watch, which keeps an eye on a number of climate factors that can stress reefs out.  That includes rising ocean temperatures, which have absolutely pummeled reefs in recent years and will only ratchet up the pressure as the globe continues to warm.

“This is the most widespread, longest coral bleaching event ever to occur globally,” Mark Eakin, the director of NOAA Coral Reef Watch, said.

Over the past two years, reefs have been essentially boiled to death in parts of every ocean basin on earth.  Abnormally hot waters have turned vibrant coral communities into pale white ghost towns as heat has sapped coral of the algae they need to survive.  That includes a tragedy unfolding in the Great Barrier Reef, which could be permanently reshaped by rising ocean temperatures.

There are only two other global coral bleaching events to precede this one:  1998 and 2010. Both came during El Niño years.  This event is a different creature, though.

It kicked off in 2014, when El Niño was still bubbling, and it’s still going strong in the middle of 2016 despite El Niño’s demise.  Bleaching alerts are in place through fall despite increasing odds of La Niña, a Pacific Ocean phenomenon which tends to cool the planet a bit as a whole.

Not all parts of the ocean are cooler than normal during La Niña, however. In particular, NOAA Coral Reef Watch sounded the alarm for Palau and the Federate State of Micronesia, which sit on the edge of the horseshoe of warm water that typically forms during La Niña in the western tropical Pacific.

Both are small island nations where reefs play a vital role in tourism and storm surge protection.  Other areas such as the Caribbean are still dealing with the added heat of El Niño propagating through the ocean and can expect bleaching risks to remain this summer and fall.

That risks extends to many reefs in the U.S. including the Florida Keys, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  Other U.S. reefs are also at risk through the fall including those near Hawaii, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Overall, U.S. reefs have been disproportionately affected by bleaching by dint of their wide geographical reach.

“More than 70 percent of U.S. reefs have already been hit,” Eakin said, noting that in comparison, 40 percent of reefs have been affected globally.

Read more at Global Coral Bleaching Continues for a Record Third Year

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