Global Coral Reef Bleaching is Now “the Most Widespread, Longest Coral Bleaching Event Ever”

On the left, coral from Lizard Island bleached in March. Two months later, the image on the right was taken. The same coral is dead. Image: XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Inertia

A long time ago, miners would carry canaries down into the tunnels. They’d use them as an early alarm system, of sorts–if dangerous gasses built up, the canary would die before the levels reached high enough levels to kill the men. Now, of course, we’ve got the technology to keep both the canaries and the miners alive. But that’s not changing much for the oceans. Coral reefs have become the canary in the coal mine of the ocean, and we’re ignoring all the warning signs they’re giving us.

For years, many in the scientific community have been screaming that global climate change is not only real, but a problem that needs to be addressed, and addressed right now. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people listening.

For the last few years, it’s been widely reported that most of the earth’s coral reefs have been affected by our warming oceans. And on Monday, researchers warned that the so-called “bleaching events” that are killing the earth’s reefs will likely continue for a third year in a row, making it “the most widespread, longest coral bleaching event ever to occur,” according to Mark Eakin, who works as a researcher for the NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch.

At a recent conference in Honolulu, the NOAA announced that many important reefs–around the United States in particular–will “likely face widespread destruction.” The conference was organized by the International Society for Reef Studies, and it brought together researchers to figure out ways to make it more apparent just how dire the situation has become. “There is something akin to a train crash about to occur,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the director of Australia’s Global Change Institute.

Reefs, it seems, might be a good indicator to help the layperson understand what is happening. “They’re important, they’re beautiful and they’re visually impacted by climate change,” Hoegh-Guldberg said. “It’s that storyline that’s so important, I think, that you can take out there and change the world.”

Coral bleaching in and of itself isn’t necessarily disastrous, if its kept to a minimum. In a nutshell, during warm spells, corals get rid of their algae and turn white. When the water cools down again, they recover. When the water stays consistently warm, however, they die. Larger than normal El Nino events coupled with man-made global warming are a recipe for disaster. Take Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for example. In the last year, it’s been discovered that more than a third of the corals in the world’s largest barrier reef are dead.

“We’re seeing complete changes to ecosystems,” said Mark Eakin, Reef Watch coordinator for the NOAA. said, adding the devastation is beyond what scientists thought was possible. “If we’re losing over half of the corals in some of the best-protected places, and these events are becoming more frequent and severe, what does the future hold for coral reefs?”

There is no doubt in the minds of most scientists that the reefs are dying because of the climate changing. “Rising temperatures due to climate change have pushed corals beyond their tolerance levels,” Hoegh-Guldberg told The New York Times. “It’s a global problem. It needs global attention.”

If one thinks as the coral reefs as the miners’ canary, it is singing its death song right now. But will researchers be able to convince people to listen in time?