Watching a coral reef die as climate change devastates one of the most pristine tropical island areas on Earth


Sam Purkis, University of MiamiThe Chagos Archipelago is one of the most remote, seemingly idyllic places on Earth. Coconut-covered sandy beaches with incredible bird life rim tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles from any continent. Just below the waves, coral reefs stretch for miles along an underwater mountain chain.

It’s a paradise. At least it was before the heat wave.

When I first explored the Chagos Archipelago 15 years ago, the underwater view was incredible. Schools of brilliantly colored fish in blues, yellows and oranges darted among the corals of a vast, healthy reef system. Sharks and other large predators swam overhead. Because the archipelago is so remote and sits in one of the largest marine protected areas on the planet, it has been sheltered from industrial fishing fleets and other activities that can harm the coastal environment.

But it can’t be protected from climate change.

A diver carries a plastic pipe for measuring while swimming over a variety of corals
A diver documents the coral reefs in the Chagos Archipelago.
Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

In 2015, a marine heat wave struck, harming coral reefs worldwide. I’m a marine biologist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, and I was with a team of researchers on a 10-year global expedition to map the world’s reefs, led by the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation. We were wrapping up our work in the Chagos Archipelago at the time. Our report on the state of the reefs there was just published in spring 2021.

As the water temperature rose, the corals began to bleach. To the untrained eye, the scene would have looked fantastic. When the water heats up, corals become stressed and they expel the tiny algae called dinoflagellates that live in their tissue. Bleaching isn’t as simple as going from a living coral to a bleached white one, though. After they expel the algae, the corals turn fluorescent pinks and blues and yellows as they produce chemicals to protect themselves from the Sun’s harmful rays. The entire reef was turning psychedelic colors.

Two bright pink coral mounds
Just before they turned white, the corals turned abnormally bright shades.
Phil Renaud/Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

That explosion of color is rare, and it doesn’t last long. Over the following week, we watched the corals turn white and start to die. It wasn’t just small pieces of the reef that were bleaching – it was happening across hundreds of square miles.

What most people think of as a coral is actually many tiny colonial polyps that build calcium carbonate skeletons. With their algae gone, the coral polyps could still feed by plucking morsels out of the water, but their metabolism slows without the algae, which provide more nutrients through photosynthesis. They were left desperately weakened and more vulnerable to diseases. We could see diseases taking hold, and that’s what finished them off.

We were witnessing the death of a reef.

Rising temperatures increase the heat wave risk

The devastation of the Chagos Reef wasn’t happening in isolation.

Over the past century, sea surface temperatures have risen by an average of about 0.13 degrees Celsius (0.23 F) per decade as the oceans absorb the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, largely from the burning of fossil fuels. The temperature increase and changing ocean chemistry affects sea life of all kinds, from deteriorating the shells of oysters and tiny pteropods, an essential part of the food chain, to causing fish populations to migrate to cooler water.

Corals can become stressed when temperatures around them rise just 1 C (1.8 F) above their tolerance level. With water temperature elevated from global warming, even a minor heat wave can become devastating.

In 2015, the ocean heat from a strong El Niño event triggered the mass bleaching in the Chagos reefs and around the world. It was the third global bleaching on record, following events in 1998 and 2010.

Bleaching doesn’t just affect the corals – entire reef systems and the fish that feed, spawn and live among the coral branches suffer. One study of reefs around Papua New Guinea in the southwest Pacific found that about 75% of the reef fish species declined after the 1998 bleaching, and many of those species declined by more than half.

Research shows marine heat waves are now about 20 times more likely than they were just four decades ago, and they tend to be hotter and last longer. We’re at the point now that some places in the world are anticipating coral bleaching every couple of years.

That increasing frequency of heat waves is a death knell for reefs. They don’t have time to recover before they get hit again.

Where we saw signs of hope

During the Global Reef Expedition, we visited over 1,000 reefs around the world. Our mission was to conduct standardized surveys to assess the state of the reefs and map the reefs in detail so scientists could document and hopefully respond to changes in the future. With that knowledge, countries can plan more effectively to protect the reefs, important national resources, providing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in economic value while also protecting coastlines from waves and storms.

We saw damage almost everywhere, from the Bahamas to the Great Barrier Reef.

Some reefs are able to survive heat waves better than others. Cooler, stronger currents, and even storms and cloudier areas can help prevent heat building up. But the global trend is not promising. The world has already lost 30% to 50% of its reefs in the last 40 years, and scientists have warned that most of the remaining reefs could be gone within decades.

Diver with large sea turtle swimming over corals.
The author, Sam Purkis, dives near a hawksbill turtle in the Chagos Archipelago.
Derek Manzello/Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation

While we see some evidence that certain marine species are moving to cooler waters as the planet warms, a reef takes thousands of years to establish and grow, and it is limited by geography.

In the areas where we saw glimmers of hope, it was mostly due to good management. When a region can control other harmful human factors – such as overfishing, extensive coastal development, pollution and runoff – the reefs are healthier and better able to handle the global pressures from climate change.

Establishing large marine protected areas is one of the most effective ways I’ve seen to protect coral reefs because it limits those other harms.

The Chagos marine protected area covers 640,000 square kilometers (250,000 square miles) with only one island currently inhabited – Diego Garcia, which houses a U.S. military base. The British government, which created the marine protected area in 2010, has been under pressure to turn over control of the region to the country of Mauritius, where former Chagos residents now live and which won a challenge over it in the International Court of Justice in 2020. Whatever happens with jurisdiction, the region would benefit from maintaining a high level of marine protection.

A warning for other ecosystems

The Chagos reefs could potentially recover – if they are spared from more heat waves. Even a 10% recovery would make the reefs stronger for when the next bleaching occurs. But recovery of a reef is measured in decades, not years.

So far, research missions that have returned to the Chagos reefs have found only meager recovery, if any at all.

We knew the reefs weren’t doing well under the insidious march of climate change in 2011, when the global reef expedition started. But it’s nothing like the intensity of worry we have now in 2021.

Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine. Humans have collapsed other ecosystems before through overfishing, overhunting and development, but this is the first unequivocally tied to climate change. It’s a harbinger of what can happen to other ecosystems as they reach their survival thresholds.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead-up to the U.N.‘s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.The Conversation

Sam Purkis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Marine Sciences, University of Miami

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp



Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University

Anyone with even a passing interest in the global environment knows all is not well. But just how bad is the situation? Our new paper shows the outlook for life on Earth is more dire than is generally understood.

The research published today reviews more than 150 studies to produce a stark summary of the state of the natural world. We outline the likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification. We clarify the gravity of the human predicament and provide a timely snapshot of the crises that must be addressed now.

The problems, all tied to human consumption and population growth, will almost certainly worsen over coming decades. The damage will be felt for centuries and threatens the survival of all species, including our own.

Our paper was authored by 17 leading scientists, including those from Flinders University, Stanford University and the University of California, Los Angeles. Our message might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But scientists must be candid and accurate if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face.

Girl in breathing mask attached ot plant in container
Humanity must come to terms with the future we and future generations face.
Shutterstock

Getting to grips with the problem

First, we reviewed the extent to which experts grasp the scale of the threats to the biosphere and its lifeforms, including humanity. Alarmingly, the research shows future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than experts currently believe.

This is largely because academics tend to specialise in one discipline, which means they’re in many cases unfamiliar with the complex system in which planetary-scale problems — and their potential solutions — exist.

What’s more, positive change can be impeded by governments rejecting or ignoring scientific advice, and ignorance of human behaviour by both technical experts and policymakers.

More broadly, the human optimism bias – thinking bad things are more likely to befall others than yourself – means many people underestimate the environmental crisis.

Numbers don’t lie

Our research also reviewed the current state of the global environment. While the problems are too numerous to cover in full here, they include:

  • a halving of vegetation biomass since the agricultural revolution around 11,000 years ago. Overall, humans have altered almost two-thirds of Earth’s land surface

  • About 1,300 documented species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more unrecorded. More broadly, population sizes of animal species have declined by more than two-thirds over the last 50 years, suggesting more extinctions are imminent




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What is a ‘mass extinction’ and are we in one now?


  • about one million plant and animal species globally threatened with extinction. The combined mass of wild mammals today is less than one-quarter the mass before humans started colonising the planet. Insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions

  • 85% of the global wetland area lost in 300 years, and more than 65% of the oceans compromised to some extent by humans

  • a halving of live coral cover on reefs in less than 200 years and a decrease in seagrass extent by 10% per decade over the last century. About 40% of kelp forests have declined in abundance, and the number of large predatory fishes is fewer than 30% of that a century ago.

State of the Earth's environment
Major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage relative to intact baseline. Red indicates percentage of category damaged, lost or otherwise affected; blue indicates percentage intact, remaining or unaffected.
Frontiers in Conservation Science

A bad situation only getting worse

The human population has reached 7.8 billion – double what it was in 1970 – and is set to reach about 10 billion by 2050. More people equals more food insecurity, soil degradation, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss.

High population densities make pandemics more likely. They also drive overcrowding, unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating infrastructure, and can spark conflicts leading to insurrections, terrorism, and war.




Read more:
Climate explained: why we need to focus on increased consumption as much as population growth


Essentially, humans have created an ecological Ponzi scheme. Consumption, as a percentage of Earth’s capacity to regenerate itself, has grown from 73% in 1960 to more than 170% today.

High-consuming countries like Australia, Canada and the US use multiple units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one energy unit of food. Energy consumption will therefore increase in the near future, especially as the global middle class grows.

Then there’s climate change. Humanity has already exceeded global warming of 1°C this century, and will almost assuredly exceed 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. Even if all nations party to the Paris Agreement ratify their commitments, warming would still reach between 2.6°C and 3.1°C by 2100.

people walking on a crowded street
The human population is set to reach 10 billion by 2050.
Shutterstock

The danger of political impotence

Our paper found global policymaking falls far short of addressing these existential threats. Securing Earth’s future requires prudent, long-term decisions. However this is impeded by short-term interests, and an economic system that concentrates wealth among a few individuals.

Right-wing populist leaders with anti-environment agendas are on the rise, and in many countries, environmental protest groups have been labelled “terrorists”. Environmentalism has become weaponised as a political ideology, rather than properly viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation.

Financed disinformation campaigns against climate action and forest protection, for example, protect short-term profits and claim meaningful environmental action is too costly – while ignoring the broader cost of not acting. By and large, it appears unlikely business investments will shift at sufficient scale to avoid environmental catastrophe.

Changing course

Fundamental change is required to avoid this ghastly future. Specifically, we and many others suggest:

  • abolishing the goal of perpetual economic growth

  • revealing the true cost of products and activities by forcing those who damage the environment to pay for its restoration, such as through carbon pricing

  • rapidly eliminating fossil fuels

  • regulating markets by curtailing monopolisation and limiting undue corporate influence on policy

  • reigning in corporate lobbying of political representatives

  • educating and empowering women across the globe, including giving them control over family planning.

A coal plant
The true cost of environmental damage should be borne by those responsible.
Shutterstock

Don’t look away

Many organisations and individuals are devoted to achieving these aims. However their messages have not sufficiently penetrated the policy, economic, political and academic realms to make much difference.

Failing to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of problems facing humanity is not just naïve, it’s dangerous. And science has a big role to play here.

Scientists must not sugarcoat the overwhelming challenges ahead. Instead, they should tell it like it is. Anything else is at best misleading, and at worst potentially lethal for the human enterprise.




Read more:
Mass extinctions and climate change: why the speed of rising greenhouse gases matters


The Conversation


Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Daniel T. Blumstein, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, and Paul Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With no work in lockdown, tour operators helped find coral bleaching on Western Australia’s remote reefs



Jeremy Tucker, Author provided

James Paton Gilmour, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Significant coral bleaching at one of Western Australia’s healthiest coral reefs was found during a survey carried out in April and May.

The survey took a combined effort of several organisations, together with tour operators more used to taking tourists, but with time spare during the coronavirus lockdown.

WA’s arid and remote setting means many reefs there have escaped some of the pressures affecting parts of the east coast’s Great Barrier Reef), such as degraded water quality and outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish.

The lack of these local pressures reflects, in part, a sound investment by governments and communities into reef management. But climate change is now overwhelming these efforts on even our most remote coral reefs.

Significant coral bleaching has been identified at WA reefs.
Nick Thake, Author provided

When the oceans warmed

This year, we’ve seen reefs impacted by the relentless spread of heat stress across the world’s oceans.

As the 2020 mass bleaching unfolded across the Great Barrier Reef, a vast area of the WA coastline was bathed in hot water through summer and autumn. Heat stress at many WA reefs hovered around bleaching thresholds for weeks, but those in the far northwest were worst affected.

The remoteness of the region and shutdowns due to COVID-19 made it difficult to confirm which reefs had bleached, and how badly. But through these extraordinary times, a regional network of collaborators managed to access even our most remote coral reefs to provide some answers.




Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology provided regional estimates of heat stress, from which coral bleaching was predicted and surveys targeted.

At reefs along the Kimberley coastline, bleaching was confirmed by WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), Bardi Jawi Indigenous rangers, the Kimberley Marine Research Centre and tourist operators.

At remote oceanic reefs hundreds of kilometres from the coastline, bleaching was confirmed in aerial footage provided by Australian Border Force.

Subsequent surveys were conducted by local tourist operators, with no tourists through COVID-19 shutdown and eager to check the condition of reefs they’ve been visiting for many years.

The first confirmation of bleaching on remote coral atolls at Ashmore Reef and the Rowley Shoals was provided in aerial images captured by Australian Border Force.
Australian Border Force, Author provided

The Rowley Shoals

Within just a few days, a tourist vessel chartered by the North West Shoals to Shore Research Program, with local operators and a DBCA officer, departed from Broome for the Rowley Shoals. These three reef atolls span 100km near the edge of the continental shelf, about 260km west-north-west offshore.

One of only two reef systems in WA with high and stable coral cover in the last decade, the Rowley Shoals is a reminder of beauty and value of healthy, well managed coral reefs.

But the in-water surveys and resulting footage confirmed the Rowley Shoals has experienced its worst bleaching event on record.

The most recent heatwave has caused widespread bleaching at the Rowley Shoals, which had previously escaped the worst of the regional heat stress.
Jeremy Tucker, Author provided

All parts of the reef and groups of corals were affected; most sites had between 10% and 30% of their corals bleached. Some sites had more than 60% bleaching and others less than 10%.

The heat stress also caused bleaching at Ashmore Reef, Scott Reef and some parts of the inshore Kimberley and Pilbara regions, all of which were badly affected during the 2016/17 global bleaching event.

This most recent event (2019/20) is significant because of the extent and duration of heat stress. It’s also notable because it occurred outside the extreme El Niño–Southern Oscillation phases – warming or cooling of the ocean’s surface that has damaged the northern and southern reefs in the past.

A reef crisis

The impacts from climate change are not restricted to WA or the Great Barrier Reef – a similar scenario is playing out on reefs around the world, including those already degraded by local pressures.

By global standards, WA still has healthy coral reefs. They provide a critical reminder of what reefs offer in terms of natural beauty, jobs and income from fisheries and tourism.

Despite the most recent bleaching, the Rowley Shoals remains a relatively healthy reef system by global standards. But like all reefs, its future is uncertain under climate change.
James Gilmour, Author provided

But we’ve spent two decades following the trajectories of some of WA’s most remote coral reefs. We’ve seen how climate change and coral bleaching can devastate entire reef systems, killing most corals and dramatically altering associated communities of plants and animals.

And we’ve seen the same reefs recover over just one or two decades, only to again be devastated by mass bleaching – this time with little chance of a full recovery in the future climate.

Ongoing climate change will bring more severe cyclones and mass bleaching, the two most significant disturbances to our coral reefs, plus additional pressures such as ocean acidification.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the only way to alleviate these pressures. In the meantime, scientists will work to slow the rate of coral reef degradation though new collaborations, and innovative, rigorous approaches to reef management.The Conversation

James Paton Gilmour, Research Scientist: Coral Ecology, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If we can put a man on the Moon, we can save the Great Barrier Reef



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Paul Hardisty, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Christian Roth, CSIRO; Damien Burrows, James Cook University; David Mead, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Ken Anthony, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Mark Gibbs, Queensland University of Technology, and Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

Scientists recently confirmed the Great Barrier Reef suffered another serious bleaching event last summer – the third in five years. Dramatic intervention to save the natural wonder is clearly needed.

First and foremost, this requires global greenhouse gas emissions to be slashed. But the right combination of technological and biological interventions, deployed with care at the right time and scale, are also critical to securing the reef’s future.




Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


This could include methods designed to shade and cool the reef, techniques to help corals adapt to warmer temperatures, ways to help damaged reefs recover, and smart systems that target interventions to the most strategically beneficial locations.

Research into breeding coral hybrids for heat-stress resistance could help restore parts of the reef.
Marie Roman/AIMS, Author provided

Implementing such measures across the breadth of the reef – the world’s biggest reef ecosystem – will not be easy, or cheap. In fact, we believe the scale of the task is greater than the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission in 1969 – but not impossible.

That mission was a success, not because a few elements worked to plan, but because of the integration, coordination and alignment of every element of the mission’s goal: be the first to land and walk on the Moon, and then fly home safely.

Half a century later, facing the ongoing decline of the Great Barrier Reef, we can draw important lessons from that historic human achievement.

Intervening to save the reef

The recently released Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program concept feasibility study shows Australia could feasibly, and with reasonable probability of success, intervene to help the reef adapt to and recover from the effects of climate change.

The study, of which we were a part, involved more than 100 leading coral reef scientists, modellers, economists, engineers, business strategists, social scientists, decision scientists and reef managers.

More than 100 coral reef scientists took part in the feasibility study.
Nick Thake/AIMS, Author provided

It shows how new and existing interventions, supported by the best available research and development, could help secure a future for the reef.

We must emphasise that interventions to help the reef adapt to and recover from climate change will not, alone, save it. Success also depends on reducing global greenhouse emissions as quickly as possible. But the hands-on measures we’re proposing could help buy time for the reef.

Cloud brightening to heat-tolerant corals

Our study identified 160 possible interventions that could help revive the reef, and build on its natural resilience. We’ve whittled it down to the 43 most effective and realistic.

Possible interventions for further research and development include brightening clouds with salt crystals to shade and cool corals; ways to increase the abundance of naturally heat-tolerant corals in local populations, such as through aquarium-based selective breeding and release; and methods to promote faster recovery on damaged reefs, such as deploying structures designed to stabilise reef rubble.

But there will be no single silver bullet solution. The feasibility study showed that methods working in combination, along with water quality improvement and crown-of-thorns starfish control, will provide the best results.

Field testing the heat resistant coral hybrids in the Great Barrier Reef.
Kate Green/AIMS, Author provided

Harder than landing on the Moon

There are four reasons why saving the Great Barrier Reef in coming decades could be more challenging than the 1969 Moon mission.

First, warming events have already driven the reef into decline with back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, and now again in 2020. The next major event is now only just around the corner.




Read more:
‘This situation brings me to despair’: two reef scientists share their climate grief


Second, current emission reduction pledges would see the world warm by 2.3-3.5℃ relative to pre-industrial levels. This climate scenario, which is not the worst case, would be beyond the range that allows today’s coral reef ecosystems to function.

Without swift action, the prospect for the world’s coral reefs is bleak, with most expected to become seriously degraded before mid-century.

The Great Barrier Reef has been hit by consecutive bleaching events – restoring it may be harder than landing on the moon.
Shutterstock

Third, we still have work to do to control local pressures, including water quality and marine pests crown-of-thorns starfish.

And fourth, the inherent complexity of natural systems, particularly ones as diverse as coral reefs, provides an additional challenge not faced by NASA engineers 50 years ago.

So keeping the Great Barrier Reef, let alone the rest of the world’s reefs, safe from climate change will dwarf the challenge of any space mission. But there is hope.

We must start now

The federal government recently re-announced A$100 million from the Reef Trust Partnership towards a major research and development effort for this program. This will be augmented by contributions of A$50m from research institutions, and additional funding from international philanthropists.

Our study shows that under a wide range of future emission scenarios, the program is very likely to be worth the effort, more so if the world meets the Paris target and rapidly cuts greenhouse gas emissions.




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I studied what happens to reef fish after coral bleaching. What I saw still makes me nauseous


What’s more, economic analyses included in the feasibility study show successful Great Barrier Reef intervention at scale could create benefits to Australia of between A$11 billion and A$773 billion over a 60-year period, with much of it flowing to regional economies and Traditional Owner communities.

And perhaps more importantly, if Australia is successful in this effort, we can lead the world in a global effort to save these natural wonders bequeathed to us across the ages. We must start the journey now. If we wait, it may be too late.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of David Wachenfeld, Chief Scientist of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and member of the the steering committee for the development of this program.The Conversation

Paul Hardisty, CEO, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Christian Roth, CSIRO Great Barrier Reef Coordinator & Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Damien Burrows, Director of TropWATER, James Cook University; David Mead, Executive Director of Strategic Development at Australian Institute of Marine Science, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Ken Anthony, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Line K Bay, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Mark Gibbs, Director, Knowledge to Innovation; Chair, Green Cross Australia, Queensland University of Technology, and Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 big environment stories you probably missed while you’ve been watching coronavirus



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Rod Lamberts, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Australian National University

Good news: COVID-19 is not the only thing going on right now!

Bad news: while we’ve all been deep in the corona-hole, the climate crisis has been ticking along in the background, and there are many things you may have missed.

Fair enough – it’s what people do. When we are faced with immediate, unambiguous threats, we all focus on what’s confronting us right now. The loss of winter snow in five or ten years looks trivial against images of hospitals pushed to breaking point now.




Read more:
While we fixate on coronavirus, Earth is hurtling towards a catastrophe worse than the dinosaur extinction


As humans, we also tend to prefer smaller, short-term rewards over larger long-term ones. It’s why some people would risk illness and possible prosecution (or worse, public shaming) to go to the beach with their friends even weeks after social distancing messages have become ubiquitous.

But while we might need to ignore climate change right now if only to save our sanity, it certainly hasn’t been ignoring us.

So here’s what you may have missed while coronavirus dominates the news cycle.

Heatwave in Antarctica

Antarctica is experiencing alarmingly balmy weather.
Shutterstock

On February 6 this year, the northernmost part of Antarctica set a new maximum temperature record of 18.4℃. That’s a pleasant temperature for an early autumn day in Canberra, but a record for Antarctica, beating the old record by nearly 1℃.

That’s alarming, but not as alarming as the 20.75℃ reported just three days later to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula at Marambio station on Seymour Island.




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Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


Bleaching the reef

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned a global average temperature rise of 1.5℃ could wipe out 90% of the world’s coral.

As the world looks less likely to keep temperature rises to 1.5℃, in 2019 the five-year outlook for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. The downgrading came in the wake of two mass bleaching events, one in 2016 and another in 2017, damaging two-thirds of the reef.

And now, in 2020, it has just experienced its third in five years.

Of course, extreme Antarctic temperatures and reef bleaching are the products of human-induced climate change writ large.

But in the short time since the COVID-19 crisis began, several examples of environmental vandalism have been deliberately and specifically set in motion as well.




Read more:
We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy


Coal mining under a Sydney water reservoir

The Berejiklian government in New South Wales has just approved the extension of coal mining by Peabody Energy – a significant funder of climate change denial – under one of Greater Sydney’s reservoirs. This is the first time such an approval has been granted in two decades.

While environmental groups have pointed to significant local environmental impacts – arguing mining like this can cause subsidence in the reservoir up to 25 years after the mining is finished – the mine also means more fossil carbon will be spewed into our atmosphere.

Peabody Energy argues this coal will be used in steel-making rather than energy production. But it’s still more coal that should be left in the ground. And despite what many argue, you don’t need to use coal to make steel.




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Albanese says we can’t replace steelmaking coal. But we already have green alternatives


Victoria green-lights onshore gas exploration

In Victoria, the Andrews government has announced it will introduce new laws into Parliament for what it calls the “orderly restart” of onshore gas exploration. In this legislation, conventional gas exploration will be permitted, but an existing temporary ban on fracking and coal seam gas drilling will be made permanent.

The announcement followed a three-year investigation led by Victoria’s lead scientist, Amanda Caples. It found gas reserves in Victoria “could be extracted without harming the environment”.

Sure, you could probably do that (though the word “could” is working pretty hard there, what with local environmental impacts and the problem of fugitive emissions). But extraction is only a fraction of the problem of natural gas. It’s the subsequent burning that matters.




Read more:
Victoria quietly lifted its gas exploration pause but banned fracking for good. It’s bad news for the climate


Trump rolls back environmental rules

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Trump administration is taking the axe to some key pieces of environmental legislation.

One is an Obama-era car pollution standard, which required an average 5% reduction in greenhouse emissions annually from cars and light truck fleets. Instead, the Trump administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles” requires just 1.5%.

The health impact of this will be stark. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the shift will mean 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 more other respiratory problems, and US$190 billion in additional health costs between now and 2050.

And then there are the climate costs: if manufacturers followed the Trump administration’s new looser guidelines it would add 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the equivalent of 17 additional coal-fired power plants.




Read more:
When it comes to climate change, Australia’s mining giants are an accessory to the crime


And so…

The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass.

The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow.

But like hangovers after a large celebration, tomorrows come sooner than we expect, and they never forgive us for yesterday’s behaviour.The Conversation

Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University and Will J Grant, Senior Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We just spent two weeks surveying the Great Barrier Reef. What we saw was an utter tragedy



Author supplied

Terry Hughes, James Cook University and Morgan Pratchett, James Cook University

The Australian summer just gone will be remembered as the moment when human-caused climate change struck hard. First came drought, then deadly bushfires, and now a bout of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef – the third in just five years. Tragically, the 2020 bleaching is severe and the most widespread we have ever recorded.

Coral bleaching at regional scales is caused by spikes in sea temperatures during unusually hot summers. The first recorded mass bleaching event along Great Barrier Reef occurred in 1998, then the hottest year on record.




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Since then we’ve seen four more mass bleaching events – and more temperature records broken – in 2002, 2016, 2017, and again in 2020.

This year, February had the highest monthly sea surface temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology’s records began in 1900.

Not a pretty picture

We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Great Barrier Reef region. Two observers, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, scored each reef visually, repeating the same procedures developed during early bleaching events.

The accuracy of the aerial scores is verified by underwater surveys on reefs that are lightly and heavily bleached. While underwater, we also measure how bleaching changes between shallow and deeper reefs.




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Of the reefs we surveyed from the air, 39.8% had little or no bleaching (the green reefs in the map). However, 25.1% of reefs were severely affected (red reefs) – that is, on each reef more than 60% of corals were bleached. A further 35% had more modest levels of bleaching.

Bleaching isn’t necessarily fatal for coral, and it affects some species more than others. A pale or lightly bleached coral typically regains its colour within a few weeks or months and survives.

The 2020 coral bleaching event was the second-worst in more than two decades.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

But when bleaching is severe, many corals die. In 2016, half of the shallow water corals died on the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef between March and November. Later this year, we’ll go underwater to assess the losses of corals during this most recent event.

Compared to the four previous bleaching events, there are fewer unbleached or lightly bleached reefs in 2020 than in 1998, 2002 and 2017, but more than in 2016. Similarly, the proportion of severely bleached reefs in 2020 is exceeded only by 2016. By both of these metrics, 2020 is the second-worst mass bleaching event of the five experienced by the Great Barrier Reef since 1998.

The unbleached and lightly bleached (green) reefs in 2020 are predominantly offshore, mostly close to the edge of the continental shelf in the northern and southern Great Barrier Reef. However, offshore reefs in the central region were severely bleached again. Coastal reefs are also badly bleached at almost all locations, stretching from the Torres Strait in the north to the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.



CC BY-ND

For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors. The north was the worst affected region in 2016, followed by the centre in 2017.

In 2020, the cumulative footprint of bleaching has expanded further, to include the south. The distinctive footprint of each bleaching event closely matches the location of hotter and cooler conditions in different years.

Poor prognosis

Of the five mass bleaching events we’ve seen so far, only 1998 and 2016 occurred during an El Niño – a weather pattern that spurs warmer air temperatures in Australia.

But as summers grow hotter under climate change, we no longer need an El Niño to trigger mass bleaching at the scale of the Great Barrier Reef. We’ve already seen the first example of back-to-back bleaching, in the consecutive summers of 2016 and 2017. The gap between recurrent bleaching events is shrinking, hindering a full recovery.

For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef.
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies

After five bleaching events, the number of reefs that have escaped severe bleaching continues to dwindle. Those reefs are located offshore, in the far north and in remote parts of the south.

The Great Barrier Reef will continue to lose corals from heat stress, until global emissions of greenhouse gasses are reduced to net zero, and sea temperatures stabilise. Without urgent action to achieve this outcome, it’s clear our coral reefs will not survive business-as-usual emissions.




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I studied what happens to reef fish after coral bleaching. What I saw still makes me nauseous


The Conversation


Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University and Morgan Pratchett, Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I studied what happens to reef fish after coral bleaching. What I saw still makes me nauseous



Victor Huertas, Author provided

Jodie L. Rummer, James Cook University

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering its third mass bleaching event in five years. It follows the record-breaking mass bleaching event in 2016 that killed a third of Great Barrier Reef corals, immediately followed by another in 2017.

While we don’t know if fish populations declined from the 2016 bleaching disaster, one 2018 study did show the types of fish species on some coral reefs changed. Our study dug deeper into fish DNA.

I was part of an international team of scientists that, for the first time, tracked wild populations of five species of coral reef fish before, during, and after the 2016 marine heatwave.

From a scientific perspective, the results are fascinating and world-first.

Marine heatwaves are now becoming more frequent and more severe with climate change. Corals are bleaching, as pictured here.
Jodie Rummer, Author provided

We used gene expression as a tool to survey how well fish can handle hotter waters. Gene expression is the process where a gene is read by cell machinery and creates a product such as a protein, resulting in a physical trait.

We know many tropical coral reef fish are already living at temperatures close to their upper limits. Our findings can help predict which of these species will be most at risk from repeated heatwaves.




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But from a personal perspective, I still feel nauseous thinking about what the reef looked like during this project. I’ll probably feel this way for a long time.

Rewind to November 2015

We were prepared. Back then we didn’t know the reef was about to bleach and lead to widespread ecological devastation. But we did anticipate that 2016 would be an El Niño year. This is a natural climate cycle that would mean warm summer waters in early 2016 would stick around longer than usual.

But we can’t blame El Niño – the ocean has already warmed by 1°C above pre-industrial levels from continued greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, marine heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe with climate change.

Given this foresight, we took some quick liver biopsies from several coral reef fish species at our field site in December 2015, just in case.

Coral bleaching at Magnetic Island, March 2020.
Victor Huertas, Author provided

A couple months later, we were literally in hot water

In February 2016, my colleague and I were based on Lizard Island in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef working on another project.

The low tides had shifted to the afternoon hours. We were collecting fish in the shallow lagoon off the research station, and our dive computers read that the water temperature was 33°C.




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We looked at each other. These are the temperatures we use to simulate climate change in our laboratory studies for the year 2050 or 2100, but they’re happening now.

Over the following week, we watched corals turn fluorescent and then bone-white.

The water was murky with slime from the corals’ immune responses and because they were slowly exuding their symbiotic zooxanthellae – the algae that provides corals with food and the vibrant colours we know and love when we think about a coral reef. The reef was literally dying before our eyes.

A third of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef perished after the 2016 heatwave.
Jodie Rummer, Author provided

Traits for dealing with heatwaves

We sampled fish during four time periods around this devastating event: before, at the start, during, and after.

Some genes are always “switched on”, regardless of environmental conditions. Other genes switch on or off as needed, depending on the environment.

If we found these fish couldn’t regulate their gene expression in response to temperature stress, then the functions – such as metabolism, respiration, and immune function – also cannot change as needed. Over time, this could compromise survival.




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The plasticity (a bit like flexibility) of these functions, or phenotypes, is what buffers an organism from environmental change. And right now, this may be the only hope for maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystems in the face of repeated heatwave events.

So, what were the fish doing?

We looked at expression patterns of thousands of genes. We found the same genes responded differently between species. In other words, some fish struggled more than others to cope with marine heatwaves.

Ostorhinchus doederleini, a species of cardinalfish, is bad at coping with marine heatwaves.
Göran Nilsson, Author provided

The species that coped the least was a nocturnal cardinalfish species (Cheilodipterus quinquelineatus). We found it had the lowest number of differentially expressed genes (genes that can switch on or off to handle different stressors), even when facing the substantial change in conditions from the hottest to the coolest months.

In contrast, the spiny damselfish (Acanthochromis polyacanthus) responded to the warmer conditions with changes in the expression of thousands of genes, suggesting it was making the most changes to cope with the heatwave conditions.

What can these data tell us?

Our findings not only have implications for specific fish species, but for the whole ecosystem. So policymakers and the fishing industry should screen more species to predict which will be sensitive and which will tolerate warming waters and heatwaves. This is not a “one size fits all” situation.

One of the species that showed the least amount of change under warming was Cheilodipterus quinquelineatus.
Moises Antonio Bernal de Leon, Author provided

Fish have been on the planet for more than 400 million years. Over time , they may adapt to rising temperatures or migrate to cooler waters.

But, the three recent mass bleaching events is unprecedented in human history, and fish won’t have time to adapt.




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My drive to protect the oceans began when I was a child. Now it’s my career. Despite the progress my colleagues and I have made, my nauseous feelings remain, knowing our science alone may not be enough to save the reef.

The future of the planet, the oceans, and the Great Barrier Reef lies in our collective actions to reduce global warming. What we do today will determine what the Great Barrier Reef looks like tomorrow.The Conversation

Jodie L. Rummer, Associate Professor & Principal Research Fellow, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Meet the super corals that can handle acid, heat and suffocation


Resilient corals are offering hope for bleached reefs.
Emma Camp

Emma F Camp, University of Technology Sydney and David Suggett, University of Technology Sydney

Climate change is rapidly changing the oceans, driving coral reefs around the world to breaking point. Widely publicised marine heatwaves aren’t the only threat corals are facing: the seas are increasingly acidic, have less oxygen in them, and are gradually warming as a whole.

Each of these problems reduces coral growth and fitness, making it harder for reefs to recover from sudden events such as massive heatwaves.




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Our research, published today in Marine Ecology Progress Series, investigates corals on the Great Barrier Reef that are surprisingly good at surviving in increasingly hostile waters. Finding out how these “super corals” can live in extreme environments may help us unlock the secret of coral resilience helping to save our iconic reefs.

Bleached coral in the Seychelles.
Emma Camp, Author provided

Coral conservation under climate change

The central cause of these problems is climate change, so the central solution is reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this is not happening rapidly enough to help coral reefs, so scientists also need to explore more immediate conservation options.

To that end, many researchers have been looking at coral that manages to grow in typically hostile conditions, such as around tide pools and intertidal reef zones, trying to unlock how they become so resilient.

These extreme coral habitats are not only natural laboratories, they house a stockpile of extremely tolerant “super corals”.

What exactly is a super coral?

“Super coral” generally refers to species that can survive both extreme conditions and rapid changes in their environment. But “super” is not a very precise term!

Our previous research quantified these traits so other ecologists can more easily use super coral in conservation. There are a few things that need to be established to determine whether a coral is “super”:

  1. What hazard can the coral survive? For example, can it deal with high temperature, or acidic water?

  2. How long did the hazard last? Was it a short heatwave, or a long-term stressor such as ocean warming?

  3. Did the coral survive because of a quality such as genetic adaption, or was it tucked away in a particularly safe spot?

  4. How much area does the coral cover? Is it a small pocket of resilience, or a whole reef?

  5. Is the coral trading off other important qualities to survive in hazardous conditions?

  6. Is the coral super enough to survive the changes coming down the line? Is it likely to cope with future climate change?

If a coral ticks multiple boxes in this list, it’s a very robust species. Not only will it cope well in our changing oceans, we can also potentially distribute these super corals along vulnerable reefs.

Some corals cope surprisingly well in different conditions.
Emma Camp, Author provided

Mangroves are surprise reservoirs

We discovered mangrove lagoons near coral reefs can often house corals living in very extreme conditions – specifically, warm, more acidic and low oxygen seawater.

Previously we have reported corals living in extreme mangroves of the Seychelles, Indonesia, New Caledonia – and in our current study living on the Great Barrier Reef. We report diverse coral populations surviving in conditions more hostile than is predicted over the next 100 years of climate change.

Importantly, while some of these sites only have isolated populations, other areas have actively building reef frameworks.

Particularly significant were the two mangrove lagoons on the Great Barrier Reef. They housed 34 coral species, living in more acidic water with very little oxygen. Temperatures varied widely, over 7℃ in the period we studied – and included periods of very high temperatures that are known to cause stress in other corals.

Mangrove lagoons can contain coral that survives in extremely hostile environments, while nearby coral reefs bleach in marine heatwaves.
Emma Camp, Author provided

While coral cover was often low and the rate at which they build their skeleton was reduced, there were established coral colonies capable of surviving in these conditions.

The success of these corals reflect their ability to adapt to daily or weekly conditions, and also their flexible relationship with various symbiotic micro-algae that provide the coral with essential resources.

While we are still in the early phases of understanding exactly how these corals can aid conservation, extreme mangrove coral populations hold a reservoir of stress-hardened corals. Notably the geographic size of these mangrove locations are small, but they have a disproportionately high conservation value for reef systems.




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However, identification of these pockets of extremely tolerant corals also challenge our understanding of coral resilience, and of the rate and extent with which coral species can resist stress.The Conversation

Emma F Camp, DECRA & UTS Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Climate Change Cluster, Future Reefs Research Programe, University of Technology Sydney and David Suggett, Associate Professor in Marine Biology, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat



Bleached staghorn coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Many species are dependent on corals for food and shelter.
Damian Thomson, Author provided

Russ Babcock, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, CSIRO

If you think climate change is only gradually affecting our natural systems, think again.

Our research, published yesterday in Frontiers in Marine Science, looked at the large-scale impacts of a series of extreme climate events on coastal marine habitats around Australia.

We found more than 45% of the coastline was already affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change. What’s more, these ecosystems are struggling to recover as extreme events are expected to get worse.




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There is growing scientific evidence that heatwaves, floods, droughts and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity, and that this is caused by climate change.

Life on the coastline

Corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp are some of the key habitat-forming species of our coastline, as they all support a host of marine invertebrates, fish, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Our team decided to look at the cumulative impacts of recently reported extreme climate events on marine habitats around Australia. We reviewed the period between 2011 and 2017 and found these events have had devastating impacts on key marine habitats.

Healthy kelp (left) in Western Australia is an important part of the food chain but it is vulnerable to even small changes in temperature and particularly slow to recover from disturbances such as the marine heatwave of 2011. Even small patches or gaps (right) where kelp has died can take many years to recover.
Russ Babcock, Author provided

These include kelp and mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs, some of which have not yet recovered, and may never do so. These findings paint a bleak picture, underscoring the need for urgent action.

During this period, which spanned both El Niño and La Niña conditions, scientists around Australia reported the following events:

2011: The most extreme marine heatwave ever occurred off the west coast of Australia. Temperatures were as much as 2-4℃ above average for extended periods and there was coral bleaching along more than 1,000km of coast and loss of kelp forest along hundreds of kilometres.

Seagrasses in Shark Bay and along the entire east coast of Queensland were also severely affected by extreme flooding and cyclones. The loss of seagrasses in Queensland may have led to a spike in deaths of turtles and dugongs.

2013: Extensive coral bleaching took place along more than 300km of the Pilbara coast of northwestern Australia.

2016: The most extreme coral bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef affected more than 1,000km of the northern Great Barrier Reef. Mangrove forests across northern Australia were killed by a combination of drought, heat and abnormally low sea levels along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia.

2017: An unprecedented second consecutive summer of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef affects northern Great Barrier Reef again, as well as parts of the reef further to the south.

Heritage areas affected

Many of the impacted areas are globally significant for their size and biodiversity, and because until now they have been relatively undisturbed by climate change. Some of the areas affected are also World Heritage Areas (Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, Ningaloo Coast).

Seagrass meadows in Shark Bay are among the world’s most lush and extensive and help lock large amounts of carbon into sediments. The left image shows healthy seagrass but the right image shows damage from extreme climate events in 2011.
Mat Vanderklift, Author provided

The habitats affected are “foundational”: they provide food and shelter to a huge range of species. Many of the animals affected – such as large fish and turtles – support commercial industries such as tourism and fishing, as well as being culturally important to Australians.

Recovery across these impacted habitats has begun, but it’s likely some areas will never return to their previous condition.

We have used ecosystem models to evaluate the likely long-term outcomes from extreme climate events predicted to become more frequent and more intense.

This work suggests that even in places where recovery starts, the average time for full recovery may be around 15 years. Large slow-growing species such as sharks and dugongs could take even longer, up to 60 years.

But extreme climate events are predicted to occur less than 15 years apart. This will result in a step-by-step decline in the condition of these ecosystems, as it leaves too little time between events for full recovery.

This already appears to be happening with the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Gradual decline as things get warmer

Damage from extreme climate events occurs on top of more gradual changes driven by increases in average temperature, such as loss of kelp forests on the southeast coasts of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species.

Ultimately, we need to slow down and stop the heating of our planet due to the release of greenhouse gases. But even with immediate and effective emissions reduction, the planet will remain warmer, and extreme climatic events more prevalent, for decades to come.

Recovery might still be possible, but we need to know more about recovery rates and what factors promote recovery. This information will allow us to give the ecosystems a helping hand through active restoration and rehabilitation efforts.




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We will need new ways to help ecosystems function and to deliver the services that we all depend on. This will likely include decreasing (or ideally, stopping) direct human impacts, and actively assisting recovery and restoring damaged ecosystems.

Several such programs are active around Australia and internationally, attempting to boost the ability of corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp to recover.

But they will need to be massively scaled up to be effective in the context of the large scale disturbances seen in this decade.The Conversation

Mangroves at the Flinders River near Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The healthy mangrove forest (left) is near the river while the dead mangroves (right) are at higher levels where they were much more stressed by conditions in 2016. Some small surviving mangroves are seen beginning to recover by 2017.
Robert Kenyon, Author provided

Russ Babcock, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, Research Group Leader , CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.