Mass Coral Killing Caused By Climbing Ocean Temperatures

bleached coral photo

Photo by GavB2 via Flickr CC

Indonesia is home to stunning coral reefs, but the only thing stunning about them right now is that they're dying off at alarming rates after a sea surface temperature rise. The Wildlife Conservation Society just released a report detailing the wide-spread extent of the destruction that occurred in May at the northern tip of Sumatra, as their "Rapid Response Unit" of marine biologists investigated and discovered that over 60% of the corals were bleached.As the Wildlife Conservation Society explains, coral bleaching is a "whitening of corals that occurs when algae living within coral tissues are expelled - is an indication of stress caused by environmental triggers such as sea surface temperature fluctuations." Corals may or may not recover from bleaching. Bleaching has been common in other places from Florida to Malaysia. Stressors from a rise or fall in water temperatures to pollution can cause bleaching. But here in Indonesia, scientists found that 80% of some species have died already and more are expected to die in the next few months after surface temperatures in the Andaman Sea rocketed up to 34 degrees Celsius (4 degrees higher than usual) according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). If the bleaching occurs in other areas of the Andaman Sea, it's possible that this could be the worst bleaching ever recorded in the area.

"It's a disappointing development particularly in light of the fact that these same corals proved resilient to other disruptions to this ecosystem, including the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004," said WCS Indonesia Marine Program Director Dr. Stuart Campbell.

Corals can sometimes recover from bleaching if the right precautions are taken. This area was already undergoing improved management after the tsunami in 2004, and while this heat snap has wrought incredible damage, there is a chance that the corals can make a come back, albeit a slow one.

"This is a tragedy not only for some of the world's most biodiverse coral reefs, but also for people in the region, many of whom are extremely impoverished and depend on these reefs for their food and livelihoods," said WCS Marine Program Director Dr. Caleb McClennen. "Immediate and intensive management will be required to try and help these reefs, their fisheries and the entire ecosystem recover and adapt. However, coral reefs cannot be protected from the warming ocean temperatures brought on by a changing climate by local actions alone. This is another unfortunate reminder that international efforts to curb the causes and effects of climate change must be made if these sensitive ecosystems and the vulnerable human communities around the world that depend on them are to adapt and endure."

The impacts of global warming have been apparent among coral reefs for years. Unfortunately, the global community is doing little to limit carbon dioxide emissions, which has a double impact for reefs -- not only does that mean a rise in global temperatures which kills off reefs, but it also boosts ocean acidification, to which reefs also have difficulty adapting. While there are countless studies underway and multiple attempts at creating marine preserves where coral reefs can be protected as much as possible, there's little anyone can do when it comes to getting corals out of hot water.

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More on Coral Reefs
Malaysia Closes World-Famous Diving Sites to Save Coral Reefs
Coral Bleaching Creates a Vicious Cycle of Further Bleaching and Disease
Limiting CO2 to 450ppm Will NOT Prevent Catastrophic Loss of Coral Reefs

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