Curb climate change or kill off the Great Barrier Reef, say scientists

Great Barrier Reef bleaching 2016–17

"The 2016 marine heatwave has triggered the initial phase of that transition [to heat-tolerant reef assemblages] on the northern, most pristine region of the Great Barrier Reef, changing it forever as the intensity of global warming continues to escalate", the paper said.

"If we fail to curb climate change, and global temperatures rise far above 2 degrees (Celsius), we will lose the benefits they provide to hundreds of millions of people", Terry Hughes, the lead author of the report and director of the coral-reef centre at James Cook University, said.

The scientists mapped the geographical pattern of heat exposure from satellites, and measured coral survival along the 2,300-km length of the Great Barrier Reef following the extreme marine heatwave of 2016. "Rather, temperature-sensitive species of corals began to die nearly immediately in locations that were exposed to heat stress".

"[Corals that survived the bleaching event] are tougher than the ones that died".

"One of the concerns around the coral reef world is that the gap between pairs of bleaching events is shrinking", Hughes tells The Los Angeles Times.

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With year-round temperatures of 29 - 30C, the Red Sea is a more thermally stable environment than many other reef communities. Warm ocean temperatures stress the corals, causing them to kick out symbiotic algae, which drains the corals of their color.

The scientists found that in combination, the two heat waves had killed about half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef.

'The Great Barrier Reef is certainly threatened by climate change, but it is not doomed if we deal very quickly with greenhouse gas emissions.

He and a large team of researchers took boats, airplanes and helicopters low over the ocean to track the Great Barrier Reef's health.

"So there is a shift in the mix of species and the overall loss of corals has a broader impact on all the creatures that depend on the corals for food and habitats", Hughes said.

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The team found that the northern third of the reef was hit hardest, with many corals dying immediately from "heat stress", while corals with more complex branching structures were also more susceptible to bleaching. "It's only a matter of time before we get a severe bleaching event in the southern third of the reef", Hughes said. The casualties endured have already forever altered the Great Barrier Reef, compromising the diversity of fish that can rely on the ecosystem, the researchers said.

"They cooked because the temperatures were so extreme", he said, referring to temperature-sensitive species of corals which began to die nearly immediately when water temperatures rose. "They didn't die slowly of starvation, they actually cooked".

There are winners and losers among corals as they respond to the accumulating impacts of climate change.

Fish species are adjusting to the mass mortality of corals - some better than others.

Before the extreme heatwave incident in 2016, global coral bleaching had only been observed twice before.

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But the story going forward will be that of the remaining, less diverse corals and how they will likely come to dominate a changed ecosystem - and how that ecosystem, in turn, will likely be buffeted by future warming and bleaching events. "There might have been a glimmer of hope that it wasn't as bad or might recover faster than we thought".

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