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AIMS takes coral bleaching to task

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31 March 2016

This past week, as field observations and aerial surveys of severe bleaching poured in from Cairns north to Torres Strait, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) lifted its response to “level 3” –GBRMPA’s highest level of incident response.

Scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) are assessing the extent and severity of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) as part of the coordinated response by the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce. Drawing together ten research institutions across Australia, the Taskforce extends the monitoring capability of any one institution to efficiently and effectively document bleaching across as many individual reefs as possible.

In addition to field surveys and reef monitoring, AIMS scientists have seized the opportunity to advance the organisation’s long-term research goals to address fundamental questions about coral thermal tolerance. Using a combination of field surveys, tagging of individual coral colonies and high-end laboratory analyses of coral health they seek to uncover new insights about corals ability to adapt and evolve in warming oceans.

“This widespread bleaching event provides a significant opportunity to improve our understanding of how GBR corals respond to heat stress. It allows us to explore why some corals and some reefs bleach, while others do not. This information is critical to enable informed decisions about the management of the GBR under future climate change conditions,” explains the AIMS Project Leader for Bleaching Response, Dr Neal Cantin.

AIMS has allocated significant resources to documenting the spatial extent of coral bleaching in the GBR and to bleaching research activities that are particularly focussed on:

  • Extensive deployment of data loggers to measure environmental information on temperature, light, salinity, tidal flux and flow in different reef habitats;
  • Pre and post-bleaching ecological surveys to assess the severity of bleaching and the extent of recovery of coral communities to identify heat-tolerant and heat-sensitive coral species;
  • Tagging of individual coral colonies from a range of species to document bleaching sensitivity, rates of recovery and mortality over the following months; and
  • Sampling of coral colonies to identify biological and molecular indicators of sensitivity and tolerance.

AIMS’ long-term coral monitoring program has established a continuous 30-year record of change in reef communities across the vast expanse of the GBR. This extended view allows researchers to put the current severe bleaching event into the context of other cumulative pressures on the reef, including past bleaching events (1998 and 2002). To advise government and management agencies, it is important to understand how reefs respond to various pressures, and how this varies over time and from place to place. Ongoing efforts by AIMS scientists will document the damage from the current bleaching event in the context of other pressures facing the reef, including the rates and mechanisms of reef recovery.

Related stories:

23 June 2016: Limiting global warming to save coral reefs

20 May 2016: AIMS northwest Australian coral bleaching update

29 April 2016: AIMS GBR bleaching monitoring update

05 April 2016: Western Australian reefs feel the heat from global bleaching event

05 April 2016: Condition of Great Barrier Reef corals before the mass bleaching event in 2016

14 March 2016: National Coral Bleaching Taskforce puts plan into effect as bleaching intensifies

01 March 2016: National Coral Bleaching Taskforce keeping a close watch on the reef

16 February 2016: Summer isn't over yet for predicted coral bleaching events

13 October 2015: Early warning signs of widespread coral bleaching

For media enquiries:

Steve Clarke - Communication Manager Australian Institute of Marine Science
Tel: +61 7 4753 4264
Mob: +61 (0) 419 668 497