Speed of coral reef bleaching may make full recovery impossible

5 Jan 2018

A bleached coral reef near the island of Flores, Indonesia. Image: Ethan Daniels/Shutterstock

The damage being done to the world’s coral reefs has increased to such a scale that researchers now believe a full recovery is impossible.

The recent documentary series Blue Planet II revealed the shocking extent to which the coral reefs of the world are being bleached due to climate change and the pollution of our oceans.

A study recently published in the journal Science has analysed 100 tropical reef locations to reveal the true nature of the damage, and found a natural treasure that may be too late to save in its entirety.

According to The Guardian, the study found that the time between bleaching events in coral reefs has dropped dramatically by a factor of five in the past 30 to 40 years, bringing it to an unsustainable level.

To put this into perspective, major bleaching events would typically occur once every 26 years but, by 2016, this was now just under six years. Of the 100 coral reefs examined as part of the study, only six were left unaffected.

The startling results indicated that the areas most at risk are in the western Atlantic Ocean and, of course, Australasia, but there are also major concerns for the reefs in the Middle East.

Might be the end of coral reefs

The authors of the paper wrote: “Our analysis indicates that we are already approaching a scenario in which every hot summer, with or without an El Niño event, has the potential to cause bleaching and mortality at a regional scale.”

The links between El Niño and mass bleaching were made apparent, and it is now believed that rising global temperatures increase the thermal stress of the climatic event as, until the 1980s, damage to coral reefs very rarely reached the levels we see now.

Of the seven largest coral bleaching events to have occurred over the past few decades, the strongest took place between 2015 and 2016 when 75pc of the studied reefs were damaged, just surpassing the event in 1997 and 1998 that saw 74pc damage.

The paper’s co-author, Andrew Baird of James Cook University, said: “It’s impossible to know if this is the end of coral reefs, but it might be. We really need to get on top of climate change as soon as possible.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic