The severe and repeated bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has not only damaged corals, it has reduced the reef’s ability to recover.
Our research, published today in Nature, found far fewer baby corals are being produced than are needed to replace the large number of adult corals that have died. The rate at which baby corals are settling on the Great Barrier Reef has fallen by nearly 90% since 2016.
While coral does not always die after bleaching, repeated bleaching has killed large numbers of coral. This new research has negative implications for the Reef’s capacity to recover from high ocean temperatures.
How coral recovers
Most corals reproduce by “spawning”: releasing thousands of tight, buoyant bundles with remarkable synchronisation. The bundles burst when they hit the ocean surface, releasing eggs and/or sperm. Fertilised eggs develop into larvae as they are moved about by ocean currents. The larvae settle in new places, forming entirely new coral colonies. This coral “recruitment” is essential to reef recovery.
The research team, led by my colleague Terry Hughes from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, measured rates of coral recruitment by attaching small clay tiles to the reef just before the predicted mass spawning each year. These settlement panels represent a standardised habitat that allows for improved detection of the coral recruits, which are just 1-2mm in size.
Almost 1,000 tiles were deployed across 17 widely separated reefs after the recent mass bleaching, in late 2016 and 2017. After eight weeks they were collected and carefully inspected under a microscope to count the number of newly settled coral recruits. Resulting estimates of coral recruitment were compared to recruitment rates recorded over two decades prior to the recent bleaching.
Rates of coral recruitment recorded in the aftermath of the recent coral bleaching were just 11% of levels recorded during the preceding decades. Whereas there were more than 40 coral recruits per tile before the bleaching, there was an average of just five coral recruits per tile in the past couple of years.
The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the world’s largest reef system. The large overall size and high number of distinct reefs provides a buffer against most major disturbances. Even if large tracts of the GBR are disturbed, there is a good chance at least some areas will have healthy stocks of adult corals, representing a source of new larvae to enable replenishment and recovery.
Larvae produced by spawning corals on one reef may settle on other nearby reefs to effectively replace corals lost to localised disturbances.
It is reassuring there is at least some new coral recruitment in the aftermath of severe bleaching and mass mortality of adult corals on the GBR. However, the substantial and widespread reduction of regrowth indicates the magnitude of the disturbance caused by recent heatwaves.
Declines in rates of coral recruitment were greatest in the northern parts of the GBR. This is where bleaching was most pronounced in 2016 and 2017, and there was the greatest loss of adult corals. There were much more moderate declines in coral recruitment in the southern GBR, reflecting generally higher abundance of adults corals in these areas. However, prevailing southerly currents (and the large distances involved) make it very unlikely coral larvae from southern parts of the Reef will drift naturally to the hardest-hit northern areas.
It is hard to say how long it will take for coral assemblages to recover from the recent mass bleaching. What is certain is low levels of coral recruitment will constrain coral recovery and greatly increase the recovery time. Any further large-scale developments with also greatly reduce coral cover and impede recovery.
Reducing carbon emissions
This study further highlights the vulnerability of coral reefs to sustained and ongoing global warming. Not only do adult corals bleach and die when exposed to elevated temperatures, this prevents new coral recruitment and undermines ecosystem resilience.
The only way to effectively redress global warming is to immediately and substantially reduce global carbon emissions. This requires that all countries, including Australia, renew and strengthen their commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
While further management is required to minimise more direct human pressure on coral reefs – such as sediment run-off and pollution – all these efforts will be futile if we do not address global climate change.
Tess Moriarty, University of Newcastle; Bill Leggat, University of Newcastle; C. Mark Eakin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rosie Steinberg, UNSW; Scott Heron, James Cook University, and Tracy Ainsworth, UNSW
This month corals in Lord Howe Island Marine Park began showing signs of bleaching. The 145,000 hectare marine park contains the most southerly coral reef in the world, in one of the most isolated ecosystems on the planet.
Following early reports of bleaching in the area, researchers from three Australian universities and two government agencies have worked together throughout March to investigate and document the bleaching.
Sustained heat stress has seen 90% of some reefs bleached, although other parts of the marine park have escaped largely unscathed.
Bleaching is uneven
Lord Howe Island was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. It is the coral reef closest to a pole, and contains many species found nowhere else in the world.
Two of us (Tess Moriarty and Rosie Steinberg) have surveyed reefs across Lord Howe Island Marine Park to determine the extent of bleaching in the populations of hard coral, soft coral, and anemones. This research found severe bleaching on the inshore lagoon reefs, where up to 95% of corals are showing signs of extensive bleaching.
However, bleaching is highly variable across Lord Howe Island. Some areas within the Lord Howe Island lagoon coral reef are not showing signs of bleaching and have remained healthy and vibrant throughout the summer. There are also corals on the outer reef and at deeper reef sites that have remained healthy, with minimal or no bleaching.
One surveyed reef location in Lord Howe Island Marine Park is severely impacted, with more than 90% of corals bleached; at the next most affected reef site roughly 50% of corals are bleached, and the remaining sites are less than 30% bleached. At least three sites have less than 5% bleached corals.
Over the past week heat stress has continued in this area, and return visits to these sites revealed that the coral condition has worsened. There is evidence that some corals are now dying on the most severely affected reefs.
Forecasts for the coming week indicate that water temperatures are likely to cool below the bleaching threshold, which will hopefully provide timely relief for corals in this valuable reef ecosystem. In the coming days, weeks and months we will continue to monitor the affected reefs and determine the impact of this event to the reef system, and investigate coral recovery.
What’s causing the bleaching?
The bleaching was caused by high seawater temperature from a persistent summer marine heatwave off southeastern Australia. Temperature in January was a full degree Celsius warmer than usual, and from the end of January to mid-February temperatures remained above the local bleaching threshold.
Sustained heat stressed the Lord Howe Island reefs, and put them at risk. They had a temporary reprieve with cooler temperatures in late February, but by March another increase put the ocean temperature well above safe levels. This is now the third recorded bleaching event to have occurred on this remote reef system.
However, this heatwave has not equally affected the whole reef system. In parts of the lagoon areas the water can be cooler, due to factors like ocean currents and fresh groundwater intrusion, protecting some areas from bleaching. Some coral varieties are also more heat-resistant, and a particular reef that has been exposed to high temperatures in the past may better cope with the current conditions. For a complex variety of reasons, the bleaching is unevenly affecting the whole marine park.
Coral bleaching is the greatest threat to the sustainability of coral reefs worldwide and is now clearly one of the greatest challenges we face in responding to the impact of global climate change. UNESCO World Heritage regions, such as the Lord Howe Island Group, require urgent action to address the cause and impact of a changing climate, coupled with continued management to ensure these systems remain intact for future generations.
The authors thank ProDive Lord Howe Island and Lord Howe Island Environmental Tours for assistance during fieldwork.
Tess Moriarty, Phd candidate, University of Newcastle; Bill Leggat, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; C. Mark Eakin, Coordinator, Coral Reef Watch, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rosie Steinberg, PhD Student, UNSW; Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, and Tracy Ainsworth, Associate professor, UNSW
In 2016 the Great Barrier Reef suffered unprecedented mass coral bleaching – part of a global bleaching event that dwarfed its predecessors in 1998 and 2002. This was followed by another mass bleaching the following year.
This was the first case of back-to-back mass bleaching events on the reef. The result was a 30% loss of corals in 2016, a further 20% loss in 2017, and big changes in community structure. New research published in Nature today now reveals the damage that these losses caused to the wider ecosystem functioning of the Great Barrier Reef.
Fast-growing staghorn and tabular corals suffered a rapid, catastrophic die-off, changing the three-dimensional character of many individual reefs. In areas subject to the most sustained high temperatures, some corals died without even bleaching – the first time that such rapid coral death has been documented on such a wide scale.
The research team, led by Terry Hughes of James Cook University, carried out extensive surveys during the two bleaching events, at a range of scales.
First, aerial surveys from planes generated thousands of videos of the reef. The data from these videos were then verified by teams of divers in the water using traditional survey methods.
Finally, teams of divers took samples of corals and investigated their physiology in the laboratory. This included counting the density of the microalgae that live within the coral cells and provide most of the energy for the corals.
The latest paper follows on from earlier research which documented the 81% of reefs that bleached in the northern sector of the Great Barrier Reef, 33% in the central section, and 1% in the southern sector, and compared this event with previous bleaching events. Another previous paper documented the reduction in time between bleaching events since the 1980s, down to the current interval of one every six years.
Although reef scientists have been predicting the increased frequency and severity of bleaching events for two decades, this paper has some surprising and alarming results. Bleaching events occur when the temperature rises above the average summer maximum for a sufficient period. We measure this accumulated heat stress in “degree heating weeks” (DHW) – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum, multiplied by the number of weeks. Generally, the higher the DHW, the higher the expected coral death.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has suggested that bleaching generally starts at 4 DHW, and death at around 8 DHW. Modelling of the expected results of future bleaching events has been based on these estimates, often with the expectation the thresholds will become higher over time as corals adapt to changing conditions.
In the 2016 event, however, bleaching began at 2 DHW and corals began dying at 3 DHW. Then, as the sustained high temperatures continued, coral death accelerated rapidly, reaching more than 50% mortality at only 4-5 DHW.
Many corals also died very rapidly, without appearing to bleach beforehand. This suggests that these corals essentially shut down due to the heat. This is the first record of such rapid death occurring at this scale.
This study shows clearly that the structure of coral communities in the northern sector of the reef has changed dramatically, with a predominant loss of branching corals. The post-bleaching reef has a higher proportion of massive growth forms which, with no gaps between branches, provide fewer places for fish and invertebrates to hide. This loss of hiding places is one of the reasons for the reduction of fish populations following severe bleaching events.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which produces the Red List of threatened species, recently extended this concept to ecosystems that are threatened with collapse. This is difficult to implement, but this new research provides the initial and post-event data, leaves us with no doubt about the driver of the change, and suggests threshold levels of DHWs. These cover the requirements for such a listing.
Predictions of recovery times following these bleaching events are difficult as many corals that survived are weakened, so mortality continues. Replacement of lost corals through recruitment relies on healthy coral larvae arriving and finding suitable settlement substrate. Corals that have experienced these warm events are often slow to recover enough to reproduce normally so larvae may need to travel from distant healthy reefs.
Although this paper brings us devastating news of coral death at relatively low levels of heat stress, it is important to recognise that we still have plenty of good coral cover remaining on the Great Barrier Reef, particularly in the southern and central sectors. We can save this reef, but the time to act is now.
This is not just for the sake of our precious Great Barrier Reef, but for the people who live close to reefs around the world that are at risk from climate change. Millions rely on reefs for protection of their nations from oceanic swells, for food and for other ecosystem services.
This research leaves no doubt that we must reduce global emissions dramatically and swiftly if we are save these vital ecosystems. We also need to invest in looking after reefs at a local level to increase their chances of surviving the challenges of climate change. This means adequately funding improvements to water quality and protecting as many areas as possible.
It is no longer news that the Great Barrier Reef has suffered extreme bleaching.
In early 2016, we heard that the reef had suffered the worst bleaching ever recorded. Surveys published in June that year estimated that 93% of coral on the vast northern section of the reef was bleached, and 22% had already been killed.
After recent years of damage, what does the future hold for our priceless reef?
Coral reefs are complex ecosystems that are affected by many factors. Changes in sea surface temperatures, rainfall, cloudiness, agricultural runoff, or water quality can affect a reef’s health and resilience to stress.
Early analysis of the 2016 bleaching suggested that the Great Barrier Reef was suffering from thermal stress brought on by human-caused climate change.
Our study took a new and comprehensive approach to examine these multiple climatic and environmental influences.
We set out to answer the crucial question: could anything else have bleached the Great Barrier Reef, besides human-induced climate change?
The results were clear. Using a suite of climate models, we found that the significant warming of the Coral Sea region was likely caused by greenhouse gases from human activities. This warming was the primary cause of the extreme 2016 bleaching episode.
But what about those other complex factors? The 2016 event coincided with an El Niño episode that was among the most severe ever observed. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation system, with its positive El Niño and negative La Niña phases, has been linked to bleaching of various coral reefs in the past.
Our study showed that although the 2016 El Niño probably also contributed to the bleaching, this was a secondary contributor to the corals’ thermal stress. The major factor was the increase in temperatures because of climate change.
We next analysed other environmental data. Previous research has found that corals at sites with better water quality (that is, lower concentrations of pollution particles) are more resilient and less prone to bleaching.
Pollution data used in our study show that water quality in 2016 may have been better than in previous bleaching years. This means that the Great Barrier Reef should have been at lower risk of bleaching compared to long-term average conditions, all else being equal. Instead, record bleaching hit the reef as a result of the warming temperature trend.
The final part of our investigation involved comparing the conditions behind the record 2016 bleaching with those seen in previous mass bleaching episodes on the Great Barrier Reef, in 1997-98 and 2010-11.
When we analysed these previous events on the Reef, we found very different factors at play.
In 1997-98 the bleaching coincided with a very strong El Niño event. Although an El Niño event also occurred in 2016, the two were very different in terms of the distribution of unusually warm waters, particularly in the eastern equatorial Pacific. In 1997-98, the primary cause of the bleaching – which was less severe than in 2016 – was El Niño.
In 2010-11, the health of the Great Barrier Reef was impaired by runoff. That summer brought record high rainfall to eastern Australia, causing widespread flooding across Queensland. As a result of the discharge of freshwater onto the reef reducing the salinity, bleaching occurred.
There have been many reports in recent years warning of trouble for the Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, our study is yet another warning about the reef’s future – perhaps the most comprehensive warning yet. It tells us that the 2016 bleaching differed from previous mass bleaching events because it was driven primarily by human-induced climate warming.
This puts the Great Barrier Reef in grave danger of future bleaching from further greenhouse warming. The local environmental factors that have previously helped to protect our reefs, such as good water quality, will become less and less able to safeguard corals as the oceans warm.
Now we need to take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit further warming. Without these steps, there is simply no future for our Great Barrier Reef.
Regional variations in sea surface temperature, related to seasons and El Niño, could be crucial for the survival of coral reefs, according to our new research. This suggests that we should be able to identify the reefs most at risk of mass bleaching, and those that are more likely to survive unscathed.
But global warming, coupled with other pressures such as nutrient and sediment input, changes in sea level, waves, storms, ventilation, hydrodynamics, and ocean acidification, could lead to the end of the world’s coral reefs in a couple of decades.
Climate warming is the major cause of stress for corals. The world just witnessed an event described as the “longest global coral die-off on record”, and scientists have been raising the alarm about coral bleaching for decades.
The first global-scale mass bleaching event happened in 1998, destroying 16% of the world coral reefs. Unless greenhouse emissions are drastically reduced, the question is no longer if coral bleaching will happen again, but when and how often?
To help protect coral reefs and their ecosystems, effective management and conservation strategies are crucial. Our research shows that understanding the relationship between natural variations of sea temperature and human-driven ocean warming will help us identify the areas that are most at risk, and also those that are best placed to provide safe haven.
A recurrent threat
Bleaching happens when sea temperatures are unusually high, causing the corals to expel the coloured algae that live within their tissues. Without these algae, corals are unable to reproduce or to build their skeletons properly, and can ultimately die.
Certain types of coral can also acclimatise to rising sea temperatures. But as our planet warms, periods of bleaching risk will become more frequent and more severe. As a consequence, corals will have less and less time to recover between bleaching events.
We are already witnessing a decline in coral reefs. Global populations have declined by 1-2% per year in response to repeated bleaching events. Closer to home, the Great Barrier Reef lost 50% of its coral cover between 1985 and 2012.
A non-uniform response to warming
While the future of worldwide coral reefs looks dim, not all reefs will be at risk of recurrent bleaching at the same time. In particular, reefs located south of 15ºS (including the Great Barrier Reef, as well as islands in south Polynesia and Melanesia) are likely to be the last regions to be affected by harmful recurrent bleaching.
We used to think that Micronesia’s reefs would be among the first to die off, because the climate is warming faster there than in many other places. But our research, published today in Nature Climate Change, shows that the overall increase in temperature is not the only factor that affects coral bleaching response.
In fact, the key determinant of recurrent bleaching is the natural variability of ocean temperature. Under warming, temperature variations associated with seasons and climate processes like El Niño influence the pace of recurrent bleaching, and explain why some reefs will experience bleaching risk sooner than others in the future.
Our results suggest that El Niño events will continue to be the major drivers of mass bleaching events in the central Pacific. As average ocean temperatures rise, even mild El Niño events will have the potential to trigger widespread bleaching, meaning that these regions could face severe bleaching every three to five years within just a few decades. In contrast, only the strongest El Niño events will cause mass bleaching in the South Pacific.
In the future, the risk of recurrent bleaching will be more seasonally driven in the South Pacific. Once the global warming signal pushes summer temperatures to dangerously warm levels, the coral reefs will experience bleaching events every summers. In the western Pacific, the absence of natural variations of temperatures initially protects the coral reefs, but only a small warming increase can rapidly transition the coral reefs from a safe haven to a permanent bleaching situation.
One consequence is that, for future projections of coral bleaching risk, the global warming rate is important but the details of the regional warming are not so much. The absence of consensus about regional patterns of warming across climate models is therefore less of an obstacle than previously thought, because globally averaged warming provided by climate models combined with locally observed sea temperature variations will give us better projections anyway.
Understanding the regional differences can help reef managers identify the reef areas that are at high risk of recurring bleaching events, and which ones are potential temporary safe havens. This can buy us valuable time in the battle to protect the world’s corals.
Clothilde Emilie Langlais, research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Andrew Lenton, Senior Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO, and Scott Heron, Physical Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
As shown in a study published in Nature today, climate change is not some distant future threat. It has already degraded large tracts of the Great Barrier Reef over the past two decades.
The extreme marine heatwave in 2016 killed two-thirds of the corals along a 700km stretch of the northern Great Barrier Reef, from Port Douglas to Papua New Guinea. It was a game-changer for the reef and for how we manage it.
Our study shows that we cannot climate-proof coral reefs by improving water quality or reducing fishing pressure. Reefs in clear water were damaged as much as muddy ones, and the hot water didn’t stop at the boundaries of no-fishing zones. There is nowhere to hide from global warming. The process of replacement of dead corals in the northern third of the reef will take at least 10-15 years for the fastest-growing species.
The Great Barrier Reef is internationally recognised as a World Heritage Area. In 2015 UNESCO, the world body with oversight of World Heritage Areas, considered listing the reef as a site “in danger” in light of declines in its health.
Australia’s response falling short
In response to concerns from UNESCO, Australia devised a plan, called the Reef 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan. Its ultimate goal is to improve the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the reef: the attributes of the Great Barrier Reef that led to its inscription as a World Heritage Area in 1981.
We have written an independent analysis, delivered to UNESCO, which concludes that to date the implementation of the plan is far too slow and has not been adequately funded to prevent further degradation and loss of the reef’s values. A major shortcoming of the plan is that it virtually ignores the greatest current impact on the Great Barrier Reef: human-caused climate change.
The unprecedented loss of corals in 2016 has substantially diminished the condition of the World Heritage Area, reducing its biodiversity and aesthetic values. Key ecological processes are under threat, such as providing habitat, calcification (the formation of corals’ reef-building stony skeletons) and predation (creatures eating and being eaten by corals). Global warming means that Australia’s aim of ensuring the Great Barrier Reef’s values improve every decade between now and 2050 is no longer attainable for at least the next two decades.
What needs to change
Our report makes 27 recommendations for getting the Reef 2050 Plan back on track. The following are critical:
Address climate change and reduce emissions, both nationally and globally. The current lack of action on climate is a major policy failure for the Great Barrier Reef. Local action on water quality (the focus of the Reef 2050 Plan) does not prevent bleaching, or “buy time” for future action on emissions. Importantly, though, it does contribute to the recovery of coral reefs after major bleaching.
Reduce run-off of sediment, nutrients and pollutants from our towns and farms. To date the progress towards achieving the water quality targets and uptake of best management practice by farmers is very poor. Improving water quality can help recovery of corals, even if it doesn’t prevent mortality during extreme heatwaves.
Provide adequate funding for reaching net zero carbon emissions, for achieving the Reef 2050 Plan targets for improved water quality, and limiting other direct pressures on the reef.
At this stage, we do not recommend that the reef be listed as “in danger”. But if we see more die-backs of corals in the next few years, little if any action on emissions and inadequate progress on water quality, then an “in danger” listing in 2020, when UNESCO will reconsider the Great Barrier Reef’s status, seems inevitable.
This article was co-authored by Diane Tarte, co-director of Marine Ecosystem Policy Advisors Pty Ltd. She was a co-author of the independent report to UNESCO on the Great Barrier Reef.
Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University, James Cook University; Barry Hart, Emeritus Professor Water Science, Monash University, and Karen Hussey, Deputy Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland