Wednesday, 18 September, 2019

Great Barrier Reef at risk of ecological collapse

Great Barrier Reef bleaching 2016–17 Great Barrier Reef bleaching 2016–17
Sandra Phillips | 19 April, 2018, 04:59

And the amount of coral death measured was closely linked to the amount of bleaching and heat exposure. Fish that are highly dependent on branching corals, such as butterflyfish, declined the most.

The study found that 29 percent of the 3,863 reefs comprising the world's largest reef system lost two-thirds or more of their corals, transforming the ability of these reefs to sustain full ecological functioning. "It also shows climate change threatens the diversity that is the hallmark of coral reefs".

Said Terry Hughes, the study's lead author: "The northern Great Barrier Reef will never look quite the same again".

Prof Hughes who acts as the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU said his team was very surprised to see a quarter of the corals die in just two to three weeks during the March heatwave.

To add insult to injury, another marine heat wave hit the Reef in 2017, with severe heat stress and bleaching striking the central region. "It's been happening for a few decades and we're well on the way to a very different-looking set of species on our reefs".

"The conventional thinking is that after bleaching, corals died slowly of. starvation. It will only be possible if carbon emissions are rapidly reduced", he said. Most of the impact was along 500 miles of the northern Great Barrier Reef, its most pristine region.

There are winners and losers among corals as they respond to the accumulating impacts of climate change. "One of the big things we saw likely to happen elsewhere is this homogenization of coral ecosystems".

Following the bleaching event, researchers recorded a sharp drop in the diversity of fish communities as the mix or species changed.

For the new study, Hughes and his colleagues conducted aerial surveys of 1,156 individual reefs in the Great Barrier Reef system in March and April 2016, measuring the extent and severity of the bleaching as it unfolded. "If their diet disappears, so do they", Hughes said. In October and November 2016, eight months after the bleaching event, the scientists returned to those 63 reefs to measure coral abundance at the same sites previously surveyed. "Coral reefs provide tens of billions of dollars to economies and protect shorelines and infrastructures around the world".

The Great Barrier Reef is considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world and is the largest living structure on the planet.

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Two findings surprised and unnerved the researchers. The algae provide the corals with energy and nutrients from photosynthesis; without them, the corals often die. This phenomenon occurs when excessive heat kills or expels algae called zooxanthellae, which have a symbiotic relationship with reef-building corals. That could prove devastating to reef ecosystems, researchers said.

But in March 2016, as ocean temperatures in the northern section of the reef hit record highs, half of the corals killed during the bleaching event died nearly immediately.

"There's nearly nowhere to hide from extreme temperatures", Hughes said.

Second, scientists were able to establish for the first time the heat intensity thresholds at which corals bleach and die. "We need to focus urgently on protecting the glass that's still half full, by helping these survivors to recover". "We don't know yet where the larvae are going to come from, and in what numbers".

Some species, such as staghorns and tabular corals, were particularly susceptible, while dome-shaped porites corals were relatively resilient. Overall, these events have affected every part of the reef.

A severely bleached branching coral among the minimally bleached boulder coral.

It's also incredibly hard for the coral to recover.

As a result of the damage, the world's largest coral reef is unlikely to recover in the distant future.

Some of the researchers said it's imperative to help the surviving coral.

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