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Early warning signs of widespread coral bleaching in 2016

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13 October 2015

Widespread coral bleaching in the Northern Hemisphere coral reef regions provides an early warning that Australian reefs are likely at risk in the summer of 2016. AIMS researchers are gearing up a research program responsive to this risk.

Record breaking summer ocean temperatures have led to widespread coral bleaching in the Northern Hemisphere. These hot conditions are predicted to extend into the Southern Hemisphere in the upcoming southern summer. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has now declared the ‘third global coral bleaching event ’, following the two previous mass bleaching events in 1998 and 2002 that have devastated many coral reefs around the world.

Satellite data delivered through NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program identify bleaching conditions and areas of risk, triggering the need for a response.

Currently, the most severely affected locations are the Hawaiian Islands and the Caribbean. Closer to home, modelling predicts that a strong El Niño will continue to develop in the Pacific Ocean, which could cause bleaching in the Indian and south western Pacific Ocean in early 2016. This could put the Great Barrier Reef, Ningaloo Reef and some of the other smaller Australian coral reef systems at risk of similar widespread bleaching if warmer than normal ocean temperatures develop this summer.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has a long history in researching the impacts of climate change on corals and other reef organisms, including the causes and effects of coral bleaching. AIMS researchers have reconstructed past climate conditions, frequency historic bleaching events, monitored and modelled climate trends and future climate scenarios to predict how the reef is likely to respond to such changes. AIMS’ current work on adaptation mechanisms of coral reef animals is aimed at finding out whether some coral species and some locations might be able to cope with the effects of climate change, and determine the characteristics and locations that may provide refuge.

To be prepared for a possible mass bleaching event in the coming summer, AIMS is ramping up its targeted research to better understand coral responses to the predicted high sea temperatures, reef responses to cumulative pressures from climate change and poor water quality, and coral reef adaptation in a warming ocean. Building on baseline information, AIMS’ goal is to collect new data that can be directly compared to previous mass bleaching observations. The aim is to identify environmental conditions and management solutions that identify locations with the greatest tolerance and resilience to survive thermal stress events. The results of this work will assist the development of future management strategies for reef environments, particularly the Great Barrier Reef.

More information: General information; mass bleaching; past bleaching events; predicting bleaching events

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Steve Clarke, Communication Manager, Australian Institute of Marine Science

Tel: +61 7 4753 4264

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