Diving on the remote coral reefs in the north of Western Australia during the world’s worst bleaching event in 2016, the first thing I noticed was the heat. It was like diving into a warm bath, with surface temperatures of 34⁰C.
Then I noticed the expanse of bleached colonies. Their bright white skeletons were visible through the translucent tissue following the loss of the algae with which they share a biological relationship. The coral skeletons had not yet eroded and collapsed, a grim reminder of what it looked like just a few months before.
I spent the past 15 years documenting the recovery of these reefs following the first global coral bleaching event in 1998, only to see them devastated again in the third global bleaching event in 2016.
The WA coral reefs may not be as well known as the Great Barrier Reef, but they’re just as large and diverse. And they too have been affected by cyclones and coral bleaching. Our recent study found many WA reefs now have the lowest coral cover on record.
When my colleague, Rebecca Green, witnessed that mass bleaching for the first time, she asked me how long it would take the reefs to recover.
The worst mass bleaching on record
A similar scene is playing out around the world as researchers document the decline of ecosystems they have spent a lifetime studying.
Our study, published in the journal Coral Reefs, is the first to establish a long-term history of changes in coral cover across eight reef systems, and to document the effects of the 2016 mass bleaching event at 401 sites across WA.
Given the vast expanse of WA coral reefs, our assessment included data from several monitoring programs and researchers from 19 institutions.
These reefs exist in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the
world, so our study also relied on important observations of coral bleaching from regional managers, tourist operators and Bardi Jawi Indigenous Rangers in the Kimberley.
Our aim was to establish the effects of climate change on coral reefs along Western Australia’s vast coastline and their current condition.
The heat stress in 2016 was the worst on record, causing mass bleaching and large reductions in coral cover at Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and Scott Reef. This was also the first time mass bleaching was recorded in the southern parts of the inshore Kimberley region, including in the long oral history of Indigenous Australians who have managed this sea-country for thousands of years.
The mass bleaching events we documented were triggered by a global increase in temperature of 1⁰C above pre-industrial levels, whereas temperatures are predicted to rise by 1.5⁰C between 2030 and 2052.
In that scenario, the reefs that have bleached badly will unlikely have the capacity to fully recover, and mass bleaching will occur at the reefs that have so far escaped the worst impacts.
The future of WA’s coral reefs is uncertain, but until carbon emissions can be reduced, coral bleaching will continue to increase.
Surviving coral reef refuges must be protected
The extreme El Niño conditions in 2016 severely affected the northern reefs, and a similar pattern was seen in the long-term records.
The more southern reefs were affected by extreme La Niña conditions – most significantly by a heatwave in 2011 that caused coral bleaching, impacted fisheries and devastated other marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
Since 2010, all of WA’s reefs systems have bleached at least once.
Frequent bleaching and cyclone damage have stalled the recovery of reefs at Shark Bay, Ningaloo and at the Montebello and Barrow Islands. And coral cover at Scott Reef, Ashmore Reef and at Christmas Island is low following the 2016 mass bleaching.
In fact, average coral cover at most (75%) reef systems is at or near the lowest on record. But not all WA reefs have been affected equally.
In 2016 there was little (around 10%) bleaching recorded at the northern inshore Kimberley Reefs, at the Cocos Keeling Islands, and at the Rowley Shoals. Coral cover and diversity at these reefs remain high.
And during mass bleaching there were patches of reef that were less affected by heat stress.
These patches of reef will hopefully escape the worst impacts and retain moderate coral cover and diversity as the world warms, acting as refuges. There are also corals that have adapted to survive in parts of the reef where temperatures are naturally hotter.
Some reefs across WA will persist, thanks to these refuges from heat stress, their ability to adapt and to expand their range. These refuges must be protected from any additional stress, such as poor water quality and overfishing.
In any case, the longer it takes to curb carbon emissions and other pressures to coral reefs, the greater the loss will be.
Coral reefs support critical food stocks for fisheries around the world and provide a significant contribution to Australia’s Blue Economy, worth an estimated A$68.1 billion.
We are handing environmental uncertainty to the next generation of scientists, and we must better articulate to everyone that their dependence on nature is the most fundamental of all the scientific concepts we explore.
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
An outbreak of coral bleaching has been reported over the summer in Gang Gurak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula, 60km northeast of Darwin, homeland of several clans of the Iwaidja-speaking Aboriginal people of Western Arnhem Land.
As no formal monitoring or assessment program is in place for these reefs, it’s impossible to gauge the full severity and extent of the bleaching. However, this video from Black Point on the Cobourg Peninsula contrasts the healthy reef in 2015 and the bleached reef in 2018.
The Northern Territory has unique marine ecosystems which are largely untouched and sit in waters receiving flow from untamed rivers. There are extensive coral reefs with abundant breeding turtle populations, saltwater crocodiles and sharks.
In January this year, the water temperature between the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea reached what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls Alert Level 2 – its highest alert for the risk of bleaching and subsequent coral death.
This is an indication of the duration and intensity of a warming event, measured in “degree heating weeks” – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum temperature, multiplied by the number of weeks. Alert Level 2 indicates at least eight degree heating weeks.
Increases in sea surface temperature cause mass bleaching events. The bleached corals have lost most of the single-celled algae, called zooxanthellae, that live and photosynthesise inside the coral cells and provide the corals with most of their energy.
Bleaching patterns tell a story
The bleaching patterns of these three events were tightly correlated with degree heating weeks within geographic areas, with the 1998 and 2002 events having prominent effects in the southern areas.
In 2016 the highest degree heating weeks were recorded on the northern stretches of the Great Barrier Reef, where the most severe bleaching occurred. Southern areas experienced temperatures close to average, partly due to cooler water from Cyclone Winston.
In 2017 the Great Barrier Reef experienced another bleaching event that affected northern and central areas. This event was particularly disturbing, as it followed 2016 and, unlike 1998, 2002 and 2016, it was not an El Niño year.
It is vital that reefs have time to recover between bleaching events if they are to avoid becoming degraded. For corals that survive being bleached, full recovery takes time. Reproductive output can be reduced for extended periods, resulting in less successful recruitment.
This, often combined with the increased competition from algae and soft corals, means that replacement of corals that do not survive bleaching events can be slow. Even fast-growing corals require 10-15 years to return to their prebleaching size.
Recent analysis has shown that the intervals between bleaching events across the globe have decreased substantially since the 1980s. The median period between bleaching events is now six years. One reason for this is that temperatures in La Niña conditions (when we expect lower temperatures) are now higher than those of El Niño conditions in the 1980s.
This is further evidence that if we continue on our current path of rapidly increasing emissions, it is increasingly likely that bleaching events will occur annually later this century, as predicted by coral scientists last century.
Resilience of reefs
The 2016 bleaching event demonstrated that areas with good water quality and controlled fishing were not protected from bleaching during this temperature anomaly. However, local conditions can be vitally important for recovery in previously bleached areas and to maintain healthy populations prior to bleaching events.
Unfortunately, climate change is not only causing higher temperatures but also increased intensity of storm and cyclone damage, sea level rise and ocean acidification. So we need resilient reefs to cope with these additional challenges.
We can increase the resilience of reefs by improving water quality. We can do this by reducing sediment and nitrogen and phosphorus input and other toxins such as coal dust, herbicides and pesticides, alongside regulating fishing pressure and protecting as many areas as possible.
New management approaches urgently needed
The beautiful reefs of the Northern Territory and the Great Barrier Reef need to be protected. If we wish to enjoy Australia’s reefs in future decades, it is vital that we change our management priorities.
State and federal governments need to give these areas the priority they deserve through marine parks and ranger programs, and regulation of potentially harmful activities. Water quality needs to be funded in a serious manner. Industrial developments, such as port expansions, need to be evaluated with protection of reefs as a primary concern.
Reducing emissions dramatically is crucial to slowing all the climate change effects on reefs. Australia can lead by example by rapidly moving away from fossil fuels and opening no new coal mines.
During the late spring, corals on the Great Barrier Reef release little balls that float to the ocean surface in a slow motion upside-down snowstorm.
These beautiful events are studied avidly by scientists: the tiny bundles will become young corals, and unlocking their secrets is vital to the continuing life of our coral reefs.
The first major mass spawning of 2017 unfolded last week following the early November full moon, with another spawning event predicted for December.
Mass spawning after the full moon
Coral species have a varied sex life. The majority of species are simultaneously male and female (hermaphrodites) and typically pack both eggs and sperm (gametes) into tight, buoyant bundles that are released after dark with remarkable synchronisation. The bundles float to the surface and open, allowing the eggs meet compatible sperm.
Less commonly, some coral species have separate sexes, and a few species even release asexually produced clones of themselves. For all species with sexual reproduction fertilised eggs develop into mobile larvae that settle on the sea floor and become polyps: the beginning of a new coral colony on the reef.
Mass spawnings are spectacular events, in which dozens of coral species release their gametes at specific times. Sometimes more than 100 species spawn on a single night, or over a few successive nights.
This iconic celebration of sex on the reef was first described in the central Great Barrier Reef in 1984 by a group of early-career scientists. The discovery earned them a prestigious Australian Museum Eureka Award for Environmental Research in 1992.
The precise timing of this seasonal phenomenon is linked to seawater temperature, lunar phases, and other factors such as the daily cycle of light and dark. Mass coral spawning is the dominant reproductive mode for corals on the Great Barrier Reef, and has also been recorded on reefs around the world.
The release of egg and sperm bundles is the culmination of many months of development. In years when the full moon falls early in October and November, many colonies are not quite ready and delay spawning for another lunar cycle. That’s why this year will see some action in November and another mass spawning event after the December full moon.
An important date in the scientific calendar
Spawning can be replicated in aquarium settings, which provide unique opportunities to researchers. All three of us work in the Australian Institute of Marine Science’s (AIMS) unique Sea Simulator, where large numbers of coral larvae are produced for scientific experiments.
Scientists from the Institute and around the world work through the spawning nights to collect gamete bundles, separate sperm and fertilise the eggs, then rear millimeter-long larvae and juveniles. Many experiments continue for days, weeks and even years to address critical knowledge gaps in how corals respond to and recover from stress.
New tools for coral reef management
The extensive coral death in the northern Great Barrier Reef following back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 highlights the impacts of rapidly changing ocean conditions. AIMS scientists focus on developing ways to help coral adapt and restore damaged reefs.
Corals reefs are at a crossroads, but there is still hope. Experiments during this year’s spawning season will test whether surviving corals from recent bleaching events are naturally adapted to warmer reef temperatures, and if they produce more heat-tolerant young.
This knowledge underpins the development of active reef management tools such as assisted gene flow.
Assisted gene flow involves moving heat-tolerant corals (or their young) to reefs that are warming. This technique proposes to improve the overall heat tolerance of local coral populations, to help the buffer the reef against future bleaching events caused by warmer than normal water temperatures.
More local threats to corals include poor water quality and pollution from coastal development. The early stages of a coral’s life are very sensitive to exposure to pesticides, oil spills and sediments from dredging.
Carefully controlled experiments with aquarium-reared coral larvae provide insights into the role of these local pressures on the rate of recovery and replenishment following large-scale disturbances.
The present reality for coral reefs is one of increasing strain from climate change, cyclones, crown-of-thorns starfish predation, and declining water quality. The ability of coral reef ecosystems to recover from these challenges relies on the success of mass coral spawning both on the reef and advances in the laboratory to generate new options to enhance reef resilience.
Exploring reef restoration and adaptation needs to go hand-in-hand with ongoing (and increasing) efforts in conventional management, such as climate change mitigation, regional management of water quality and control of crown-of-thorns starfish.
Line K Bay, Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Andrew Heyward, Principal Research Scientist, Exploring Marine Biodiversity, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Andrew Negri, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science
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