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Is This the Beginning of the End of Coral?

The phenomenon that could destroy corals forever is now accelerating—and it will end coral, unless we act.

by Brian Merchant
Oct 8 2015, 2:15pm

Image: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

In 1998, an unusually sweltering El Niño did more than just break temperature records around the world—it heated up the oceans enough to spur what scientists came to call the first "global coral bleaching event." Vast swaths of the world's coral turned skeleton white, while 12 percent of it died off entirely.

But that was just the beginning. Many of the world's reefs never recovered from that traumatic event, though it wasn't widely covered in the media. Another major bleaching that impacted many reefs, especially in the Caribbean, in 2005, was also largely ignored, as was the "second global bleaching event" that took place in 2010. Reefs that hadn't bounced back from the 1998 event were devastated all over again; some didn't survive.

The media may not have been sounding the alarm, but the scientists were. "It is a difficult idea to fathom," J.E.N. Veron, the former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and one of the world's foremost coral-watchers, wrote for Yale in 2010. "But the science is clear: Unless we change the way we live, the Earth's coral reefs will be utterly destroyed within our children's lifetimes."

Now, in 2015, having done little to change the way we live, we're in the midst of what scientists have confirmed is the third global coral bleaching event. Record warm waters caused bleaching to begin in the North Pacific in 2014, and it has spread like a disease, impacting 38 percent of the planet's coral population—it will kill off a total of 4,630 square miles of coral, scientists estimate—and a full 95 percent of reefs in US waters. Two of the biggest victims? The beloved reefs of Hawaii and Florida, crucial to the tourist economy and ecosystems in both locales.

Perhaps most concerning of all, the phenomenon is expected to continue on into 2016, putting coral in unprecedented territory—a bleaching event of such magnitude has never lasted so long before. According to scientists, if oceans continue to warm at the current rate, they will become inhospitable to coral altogether, perhaps in a matter of decades. With this bleaching event, we may, in other words, be seeing the beginning of the end of coral.

This time, however, it looks like people are going to pay attention.

Image: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Coral—the tiny invertebrates whose exoskeletons comprise the majestic reefs that are home to 25 percent of the world's marine life—are sensitive creatures. If the waters coral live in get too hot or too cold, they expel a crucial symbiotic algae—zooxanthellae, which gives them their coloration—from their tissue. This gives rise to an effect that looks a lot like the iconic underground structures were bleached, hence the term. The coral are rendered ghostly white, but they're not dead, just stressed and vulnerable.

If bleaching continues for long enough, or a storm rolls through the weakened coral can perish.

When all three major ocean basins—Indian, Pacific, Atlantic—have recorded widespread bleaching at the same time, you get a global coral bleaching event.

And that's what's happening right now.

A consortium of marine scientists, ocean cartographers, and undersea surveyors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of Queensland, Reef Check, and the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, collaborated to confirm the event, which NOAA had grimly predicted would occur earlier this year.

"We've been seeing this coming for a while," Dr. Mark Eakin, NOAA's Coral Reef Watch coordinator, told me in an interview. "This is one of those times I can honestly say that I'm not happy that our predictions were correct, because the destruction is so severe."

"Hawaii is now seeing the worst bleaching it's ever seen," he continued. "Multiple bleachings across multiple islands. They're getting nailed big time. The same thing with Florida."

"What we've now seen, allowing this to go to a global event, is that it's gone beyond Florida," he said. "We have reports in Cuba, Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean has definitely joined in. And our climate models are showing that for the next four months, we're going to see a spread of the bleaching in the Caribbean from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands."

So why is bleaching spreading so quickly and dramatically? Climate change.

According to the National Climate Data Center, in the period of January-August this year, the temperature averages of "global oceans and global land were both highest on record." Read: This has, so far, been the hottest year yet recorded for the oceans. "The year-to-date globally-averaged sea surface temperature was 1.22°F (0.68°C) above the 20th century average and the highest for January–August in the 1880–2015 record... A large portion of the northeastern and equatorial Pacific Ocean observed record warmth, while the other major basins observed record warmth in some areas."

That's what makes this so ugly. The first, and worst, global bleaching event took place in 1998, a heavy El Niño year, which boosted temperatures and warmed the oceans far above average. This year, El Niño has had very little effect—this is the new normal—and coral is bleaching disastrously anyway. But that won't likely be the case next year, when scientists worry El Niño really will crank into full gear, making the already calamitous bleaching even worse.

The models that NOAA was using to project future bleaching were so alarming that it decided to publish the forecasts; a first for the agency.

"One of the things that we're doing now for the first time is that we've made available a extended outlook until 2016," Eakin said. "The signal was so big we thought it was worth releasing."

"With the strengthening El Niño, at this point, signs are indicating that there will be a stronger bleaching in 2016 than in 2015, but it's too early to say… Kiribati will continue to get hit. Much of the south and eastern Pacific will get hit. Galapagos may get hit again, even down to Polynesia."

Now, as the baseline standard temperatures rise, that distinction is going away—when I ask Eakin whether NOAA will consider it a separate bleaching event if and when the phenomenon continues or accelerates in 2016, he's not sure.

"That's a good question," he said. "In the past bleaching events have been distinct. We're going into unfamiliar territory here."

Image: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

One of the most depressing things about coral bleaching, besides the fact that it's fairly rapidly contributing to the demise of one of the planet's crucial habitats and our tropical oceans, is that, until recently, most of the public was hardly aware it was even happening.

"We've had mass bleaching events that have occurred in the past and they have gone unnoticed," Eakin said. "In 2005 we did everything we can to get word out and nobody would listen."

For the last few years, an Australian group, Catlin XL Seaview Survey, has been working to change that.

Using innovative underwater camera technology, the team has worked closely with the likes of NOAA to map impacted reefs in greater detail than ever before. The effort began in September 2012, when the Survey set out to map the Great Barrier Reef. After meticulously documenting 150,000 kilometers of the Barrier Reef with high res photos, the group branched out, partnering with Google to create a public-facing Sea View feature—basically Street View for the oceans.

"It's the most-viewed collection of underwater imagery ever made," Richard Vevers, the executive director of the Survey, told me. Those underwater photos, which are open source and free to share, have been viewed hundreds of millions of times. Sadly, they're increasingly depicting scenes of mass bleaching and coral die-off, which is what spurred the team to hook up with NOAA and other coral-watching groups to better document the process.

"Some locations you get in the water and it just looks sick," he said.

"American Samoa," he said, citing an example. "Not long ago, it was beautifully pristine. Now, it's much worse than I'd ever seen before. People didn't think this reef could die."

They were there documenting the reef, first in December of 2014, then February 2015, as part of the survey. "Then I went back," he said, "just recently, in August, and it was 80 percent dead."

"This was just one reef," he said. "We're expecting that 12,000 square kilometers of reefs will die."

The imagery reflects that. It's striking to scroll between the before-and-after imagery of the corals; it helps drive home what this phenomenon is really capable of. In a matter of months, it can transform a healthy reef into an aquatic ghost town. And that's the point: to turn these depressing photos into striking wakeup calls.

"I've been encouraged over the last few weeks with the response to the imagery," Vevers told me. "It's the fact that people haven't even heard of the first two global bleaching events and people are talking about this one—we do have the technology to be able to reveal it now. "

Now's the time.

"Some reefs will be seeing the temperatures that cause bleaching every year by 2030 or so," NOAA's Mark Eakin told me. "By around 2050, most of the reefs in the world would be seeing temperatures and thermal stress that cause bleaching on an annual basis." As in, every year. Damaged reefs won't be able to recover properly.

"We have reefs recovering but then getting hit again," he said. "Reefs that were just bouncing back from 1998 were nailed again in 2010. They may be getting hit again hard in 2016. You saw a tremendous amount of mortality in 1998. Only parts of the ecosystem can bounce back from something like that. They can't recover in a decade or two."

"How do you grow a 100-year coral in 20 years?"

The answer, of course, is that you can't. That's why, if action is not taken to address the problem, it's not an exaggeration to say that we may be looking at the end of coral as we know it. Eakin says that if corals are to survive, we must reduce the carbon concentration in our atmosphere to something closer to 350 parts per million (it's at 400 ppm and rising today), and take local action to protect local reefs from pollution, overfishing, and other damages.

If current trends hold—that is, if humans keep emitting heat-trapping carbon emissions on the same scale—coral will face an existential threat this century.

"Coral reefs aren't viable much beyond 2040 or 2050," Vevers said. "They won't be able bounce back." Consider that for a second. It's a truly profound transformation of the planet we know. In a matter of generations, coral, not just the animal, but a vibrant, infinitely recognizable hallmark of the planet.

"If we continue to see the warming that accompanies the emissions that have been going on and are projected to continue," Eakin said, "we are definitely headed down that path."

VICE is covering the launch of the Global Goals for sustainable development. In the next fifteen years, the UN wants to achieve three massive tasks: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and fix climate change. For more information on the Global Goals go to collectively.org.