2010 Coral Die-Off Worst Ever?

“The extent of warming in the Caribbean is more devastating in 2010 than in 2005, previously the worst year for bleaching there.”

I just wrote a few weeks ago on the possibility of coral reefs getting completely wiped out by 2100. Now, a couple recent research articles document the extensive damage to coral reefs around the world in 2010 alone, and it is pretty bad (understatement).

Coral Bleaching in Caribbean

Eli Kintisch of ScienceNOW writes:

Scientists studying Caribbean reefs say that 2010 may be the worst year ever for coral death there. Abnormally warm water since June appears to have dealt a blow to shallow and deep-sea corals that is likely to top the devastation of 2005, when 80% of corals were bleached and as many as 40% died in areas on the eastern side of the Caribbean.

What’s the leading cause of coral die-off? Of course, someone will probably tell me I’m not allowed to say it like this, but it is global warming. Warming “is the number-one culprit in such a massive die-off,” reef specialist C. Mark Eakin of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says. More from Kintisch:

Bleaching occurs when crucial microorganisms leave coral reefs during stress. Corals, which shelter a quarter or more of all marine species, get bleached, and may die, after prolonged heating. A few weeks of water temperatures a few degrees above normal can be fatal. During the 2005 die-off, for example, water temperatures off the Virgin Islands rose just 3°C above the average in August—but stayed that way until November. “There has been little recovery in the Caribbean since,” says reef specialist C. Mark Eakin of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland.

With 2010 looking like it will be even warmer than 2005, scientists are expecting more tragedy, especially in the Caribbean where warming was clearly greater in 2010 than in 2005 (see image above). And scientists on the ground there are seeing the coral bleaching that’s resulting with their own eyes:

“I’ve never seen bleaching like [it] in Panama,” said Nancy Knowlton, a coral biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama who has been studying the local flora for 25 years. She and colleague Hector Guzman have seen massive reefs die in recent weeks in the enclosed lagoon of Bocas del Toro in Panama after becoming coated with giant sheets of slime, the remains of dead microorganisms. “This is NOT a normal condition on reefs, even bleached reefs. Where last year there were healthy corals, this year there was only gray ooze,” she wrote in an e-mail.

What a sad tale.

Coral Bleaching Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean

Coral bleaching isn’t just happening in the Caribbean, though. This is global warming, right? The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently wrote on unprecedented coral bleaching in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean (emphasis in last sentence added by me) as well:

The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said in press release yesterday (Worst coral death strikes at SE Asia, 19 October 2010) that “[m]any reefs are dead or dying across the Indian Ocean and into the Coral Triangle following a bleaching event that extends from the Seychelles in the west to Sulawesi and the Philippines in the east and include reefs in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and many sites in western and eastern Indonesia.”

“It is certainly the worst coral die-off we have seen since 1998.  It may prove to be the worst such event known to science,” says Dr Andrew Baird of the ARC Centre.

The bleaching in these areas of the world is especially concerning since they are home to so many coral reefs.

The Coral Triangle — bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — is one of WWF’s priority areas.  It covers just one percent of the Earth’s surface, but is home to fully 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs, 76 percent of reef-building coral species and more than 35 percent of coral reef fish species. It also serves as vital spawning grounds for other economically important fish such as tuna….

In May 2009, WWF released a report, The Coral Triangle and Climate Change: Ecosystems, People and Societies at Risk, on the threat posed by climate change to the Coral Triangle. “This area is the planet’s crown jewel of coral diversity and we are watching it disappear before our eyes,” said Catherine Plume, Director of the Coral Triangle Program for WWF-US, when the report was released. “But as this study shows, there are opportunities to prevent this tragedy while sustaining the livelihoods of millions who rely on its riches.”

The report describes in stark terms the consequences of allowing the continued rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and of not addressing other threats….

But there are alternatives to that future.  People around the planet can aggressively curb greenhouse gas emissions, and in the Coral Triangle investments can be made in strengthening the region’s natural environments, solutions that would help to build a resilient and robust Coral Triangle in which economic growth, food security and natural environments are maintained.

If you are interested in this topic, read more on the WWF Climate Blog.

Both stories above were found via Climate Progress.

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