- 1 day ago ... While Corals Die Along The Great Barrier Reef, Humans Struggle To ... of explaining the science behind climate change and coral bleaching to ...
- 1 day ago ... It's the world's biggest coral reef system, home to some 400 types of coral. In the past 18 months, rising ocean temperatures helped cause the ...
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- 1 day ago ... While Corals Die Along the Great Barrier Reef, Humans Struggle to Adjust. It's the world's biggest coral reef system, home to some 400 types of ...
While Corals Die Along The Great Barrier Reef, Humans Struggle To Adjust
Then Howlett breaks the news: "Those are not natural coral colors," she tells them, prompting quizzical looks. "That is actually coral that is stressed, OK. So it's got a sniffly nose, got a bit of a sore throat."
It turns out a reef filled with neon coral is not normal. Healthy coral is usually earth-toned. The bright pinks, blues and yellows these tourists saw in their dive along the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef are the first signs that coral is dying.
And then, says marine biologist John Edmondson, "You see it going white."
"That's when it's most dramatic looking," he says, pointing to a bleached brain coral that is hundreds of years old. "But you don't know if it's going to die or it's going to recover. ... And when you start to see the coral actually dying, getting covered with algae and looking horrible, that is when it really hits home."
In the past 18 months, Edmondson has watched as two-thirds of the coral along this 400-mile northern stretch of the Great Barrier Reef has turned white and died. Rising ocean temperatures have caused the single greatest loss of coral ever recorded along the reef.
Those who work on the reef never thought things would get so bad so fast.
"I did not expect to see a loss of corals to this extent in my lifetime. This has come sooner than we had hoped," says Terry Hughes, director of the Coral Reef Center at James Cook University in Townsville, along the midsection of the reef.
The world's oceans have absorbed some of the heat from the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and in many cases, their waters are now warmer than at any time in recorded history. Corals are sensitive to temperature swings. Much like a human body, a rise of a few degrees can lead to illness, and eventually, death. The average ocean temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit. UNESCO expressed "serious concern" about the reef's health last week — though it left the reef off its endangered list.
For the past two years, Hughes has led a team of scientists in both aerial and underwater surveys of the reef. It took a while — the Great Barrier Reef is made up of more than 3,000 individual reefs stretching as long as the entire West Coast of the United States. Their findings, published in March in the journal Nature, estimate that a third of the coral died along the entire Great Barrier Reef between March and November 2016, due to warmer-than-average water temperatures.
"Close to half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have died in a period of about 18 months," Hughes says. "This is the new normal."
Hughes is calling on everyone who studies and protects the world's coral reefs to adjust to this new normal. He says coral reef management has always focused on restoring reefs to their pristine condition — before the oceans began to warm.
"And we argue that's no longer possible," says Hughes. "What we should be aiming for is keeping the reefs functional, recognizing that the world is on a conveyor belt. We are going to a new type of coral reef ecosystem, but if we're careful how we do that, we will have a functioning ecosystem that will provide benefits to people."
He doesn't have any specific answers as to how to make that happen, but he's calling on reef managers around the world to come up with plans.
The 70-year-old has given his life to the reef. For him, the new normal is hard to accept.
"I have lots of young or youngish Ph.D. students and the like, and it wasn't too many years ago when I could inspire them that this was a great area to work in and make a difference," he says. "I find that more difficult now; much more difficult now."
But along the waterfront in Cairns, where kids splash in a pool and diving boats sound their horns, his concerns seem far away. The city is the main hub of tourism along the Great Barrier Reef, a $6 billion industry employing 60,000 people. Many tour operators here take issue with the surveys scientists like Hughes have conducted of the reef's health.
Correction July 9, 2017In a previous version of this story, Terry Hughes of the James Cook University's Coral Reef Center was erroneously identified as Jon Brodie.
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