The Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching event that’s been occurring since the start of summer in the Southern Hemisphere has now spread to cover more than 900 miles of reef, according to researchers.
As we reported previously, this is the second year in a row that the Great Barrier Reef has experienced an extreme coral bleaching event — which is unprecedented, when it comes to the time period that humans have been scientifically monitoring the reef.
The culprit? The uncharacteristically high water temperatures in the region this summer (this summer in the Southern Hemisphere, that is). This is particularly notable since we are not technically in an El Niño anymore … yet temperatures are still at record or near-record highs in many places.
(As a note here to those who have complained about me referring to the 2016–2017 coral bleaching event as being the “2017” bleaching event, and the 2015–2016 bleaching event as being the “2016” bleaching event: take it up with the researchers involved, who are mostly based in the Southern Hemisphere and well aware of the “reversed” seasons but still use the terms above…)
“The bleaching is caused by record-breaking temperatures driven by global warming,” stated Terry Hughes, a director of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Given that this bleaching event follows only one year after an earlier one, the effects are particularly profound, as the surviving corals were already highly stressed and working to rebuild.
“It takes at least a decade for a full recovery of even the fastest growing corals, so mass bleaching events 12 months apart offers zero prospect of recovery for reefs that were damaged in 2016,” noted James Kerry, a fellow scientist at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
That recovery is uncertain, though, for obvious reasons.
“This is part of the global coral bleaching event that started in June 2014 and hasn’t gone away,” as Mark Eakin, the coordinator at Coral Reef Watch, put it.
That’s why we jumped the gun a while back and published an “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef — while there may be isolated portions of the reef that can survive (thanks to cold-water upwellings, local circulation patterns, etc.), the reef as a whole is very likely now in a death spiral.
Climate Central provides some context: “The planet’s reefs have been forced to cope with an oceanic heat wave since then that’s caused coral bleaching in every ocean basin. It’s only the third recorded instance of global coral bleaching, with the other two coming in 1998 and 2010, but it’s easily the longest running. The Coral Reef Watch forecast is for elevated risk of coral bleaching to continue until at least July around the world, adding further stress to coral. … The world has warmed roughly 1.8°F (1°C) since humans began emitting carbon pollution. Scientists project that coral will likely go extinct across much of the planet if the world reaches the 2.7°F (1.5°C) threshold.”
That’s a threshold that’s very nearly impossible to avoid speeding through and past at this point — to do so would require that the world’s agricultural, industrial, transportation/shipping, and cultural systems be fundamentally changed overnight. To do so would require that people completely give up a way of living that they were often born into, and think that they have a “right” to.
While some will probably bring up carbon capture technologies here as a potential “solution,” I’ll note that I’ve seen nothing that makes me think such technologies could be used effectively on a large scale in an economical way. Maybe carbon capture tech will end up being used on a large scale, but doing so won’t be cheap, and will bring with it its own economic, social, and geopolitical problems.