Great Barrier Reef succumbing to climate change more quickly than expected

The world's largest living structure shrank dramatically in the last two years and will continue to do so in the face of warming sea temperatures.

Josh Curlee | May 29, 2017

The world's largest living structure shrank dramatically in the last two years and will continue to do so in the face of warming sea temperatures. The Great Barrier Reef, a 1600-miles-long coral formation off the Australian coast, is dying off from coral "bleaching" at a faster rate than coral researchers had recently projected.

Bleaching is a byproduct of rising sea temperatures brought on by global warming. The rising temperatures cause the coral to expel algae that live inside them and provide them with vital nutrients. As the algae level, the coral's skeletons are exposed and they die. Many ecologists think that the whole reef could be extinct by 2050 if present trends continue.

Australian officials, citing aerial and surface-level surveys of the coral formations, concluded that around 29% of the reef's shallow water corals died from bleaching in 2016 alone, an upward revision from earlier estimates of 22%. And two-thirds of the reef have suffered bleaching in just the past two years, with the most coral deaths occurring in the northern areas of the reef. Most of the bleaching took place in two distinct bleaching events that hit the reef in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

The rate at which the reef is now bleaching is unprecedented, according to researchers at James Cool University in Australia, who point out that this is the first time that bleaching has been known to impact the reef two years in a row.

And Russell Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, said that more coral decline is likely this year. Ecologists say that coral reefs can recover from bleaching if the waters cool in time, but the pace of the current bleaching trends may make a recovery unattainable. The ecologists call for worldwide action on global warming as a critical first step to saving the reef.

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